Fourteen years ago, Adam Curtis made a couple of films for Charlie Brooker’s BBC show, Screenwipe. Famously, since then Charlie has been adopted by America following the success of ‘Black Mirror’. Meanwhile, ‘Hypernormalisation’ – Adam's last film – put him on the brink of real global notoriety.
We thought we’d ask these two friends and collaborators to talk about Adam’s blockbuster new series of films, ‘Can't Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World’, which premieres on BBC iPlayer today.
Adam is perhaps the best British filmmaker of his generation and Charlie is one of the most important television writers working anywhere right now, so it's exciting for us to bring them together to talk about the world, films, TV and being parodied by internet people.
Charlie Brooker: How’s your pandemic going? I think I mentioned to you that, as someone who’s usually a doomy pessimistic worrier, I’ve been surprised by how well I’ve handled it psychologically, and I think part of that is that when you’ve spent an unhealthy portion of your life dreading something awful happening, when something awful really does happen, the “dread” part is suddenly out of a job. So how’s it been for you?
Adam Curtis: I don’t have that sense of dread. But what I do find is when catastrophes like COVID hit, what immediately goes is all sense of proportion, because you just don’t know the dimensions of the thing. I remember a lot of people feeling the same after September, 2001, and when the global banking crisis hit in 2008. This is by far the worst of the catastrophes, but I find it creates that same sense of a giant something that you just don’t know how big it is or what’s going to happen - which is frightening, but also makes you realise how what we think of as normal is really just a set of dimensions we have invented in our minds, which may not actually bear much real relationship to what’s going on outside. And I suppose – like you found your sense of dread diminished – I find that quite strangely comforting. That not everything is fixed.
But I’ve also noticed how the pandemic has shone a very harsh light on lots of things underneath our societies. Not only the inequalities – like how the richer you are, the safer you are – but it’s also a bit like those mirrors in old fairgrounds that reflect back a grotesque version of reality. Like the GameStop battle. You can see people online going, “So what capitalism does is that, in the middle of a global disaster, rich people bet billions on the collapse of a business that is on its knees because of the virus – and then try and make it happen.” And then thousands of those outside the system try to fight back using the internet – and are heroes. But then conspiracy theories rise up that say those people are really fronts for other hedge funds. And finally, all the regulators and financial journalists and think-tank people pile in and say, “This is ridiculous,” and shut it all down. Sums up present society, really. Not going anywhere and eating itself.
I won’t pretend to truly understand the GameStop thing, because our financial system seems crazy. To me, it’s like trying to follow the logic of a cup-and-ball magic trick described backwards by a drunk. It’s still unfolding, but hasn’t it so far been a victory of sorts for the WallStreetBets lot, because those regulators and think-tanks and hedge funds may have closed ranks, but they’ve also been seriously rattled, and isn’t that partly the aim of it all? Pointing out that their arse is showing?
You are right – it is infernally complex. I did a little bit of research into GameStop and found that the further you go, even more doors open. It seems that Robinhood – the trading site that allows individuals to trade free of charge – isn’t quite as simply radical as it presents itself. It’s set up by two people who say they come from the Occupy movement and are dedicated to democratising finance. Which I am sure is true. But they also make their money, it seems, by selling the data from all the individuals that use their site. So they also turn out to be like all those social media companies who used to present themselves as radical democratisers of information, but were also extracting information from us on an industrial scale. Online radicalism is a very slippy-slidey sort of thing.
To get a chunk of praise out of the way early on: I think Can’t Get You Out of My Head is brilliant. I’d say it’s the best thing you’ve done – and it feels like it’s perhaps the most accessible thing you’ve done, too, because of the focus on human stories. I ripped through the whole thing like an addictive drama. Were you hoping to make a crowd-pleaser? Are you always hoping to make a crowd-pleaser? Where do you stand on pleasing crowds? Not that we’re allowed crowds any more.
OK. I’ll get the thank you, blush thing out of the way. Thank you, Charlie – that actually means a great deal. When you texted me saying that, I was so pleased. And relieved – because you’re right, I have tried this time to make something that is more emotionally involving and is driven as much by human stories as it is by the ideas. And to know that you felt that was great.
I don’t set out to make a crowd-pleaser, but I do always want to do things that grab people emotionally, through the stories and the music. But my problem is that I am also interested in ideas and theories about the world – and I find there is always the inexorable tug of gravity from planet meta-tosh, or meta-bollocks, that pulls me away from that. I think that’s OK when you want to say something direct, like I did with Hypernormalisation. But with this I wanted to do something which was about the interplay of ideas with the lives and experiences of all kind of people. Because I think that’s really how the world changes – what happens to ideas when they get mixed up with what’s going on inside people’s minds, and what then results. Which allowed me to tell all kinds of stories in a more involving way.
I think, because of the focus on human characters, when you start introducing political ideals and theories and notions, those become a little like characters too, mingling with the human cast, whispering in their ears and sometimes tripping them up. I honestly can’t work out if saying that makes me sound like an idiot, or worse, a twat. But I’ve said it now. So hopefully you’ll agree that I’m right.
I think that is a very good way of describing the ideas in the films. They are like other characters that, once they start mingling with the characters of the films, take on a life of their own. And then, just like the individuals, change and grow.
Watching your cast of characters plummet through time reminded me a bit of Michael Apted’s Up series [which follows the lives of 14 people from the age of seven]. I once had a DVD boxset of 7-49 Up, which I watched back-to-back over the course of one weekend, and it was existentially bracing to see people shoot from childhood to middle age so quickly.
Of course, the range of characters in your series encompasses everyone from Jiang Qing to Dominic Cummings. Your treatment of these people feels broadly empathetic. While you’re making something like this, as you read about their lives and watch what must be hours of footage of them, do you grow fond of them? Even Dominic Cummings? Because usually my dislike of him triples in value for every 12 seconds of footage of him I have to sit through. Although that wasn’t the case here.
I really liked the Up series too. Especially the way the individuals changed and became like different people because of different experiences at different points in their lives. It sort of expressed the complexity of the world, in a way that you hardly ever see on TV. I think why I chose to do these films like a novel, with characters at the heart of it, was because I was trying to get at that complexity. How, over the course of even one lifetime, one person can have the same set of facts but change their minds and beliefs many times to try and make sense of the world and their lived experience.
Because of that, I chose characters that were complicated and ambiguous. And yes – I am broadly empathetic to them, because I think a lot of journalism tends to divide the characters they describe into goodies and baddies. Whereas we know that people aren’t like that. So, for example, I tell the story of Jiang Qing, who as an actor in the film studios of Shanghai in the 1930s was looked down on and dismissed as a woman by the studio bosses. Then, when she joined the revolutionary movement, she found herself scorned and loathed by the other revolutionaries when she became Mao’s wife.
Jiang Qing was a powerful and ambitious person who found herself blocked at every turn. And you can sympathise with that. But then when she helped start the Cultural Revolution she turned into this angry, terrifying, vengeful force, and used it to take revenge on many of those who had blocked her in the past. It doesn’t mean I am being sympathetic to that, but you do get a sense of why she became like that. And it also gives an insight into why so many of the movements that tried to change the world that emerged out of the collapse of old empires – in China, as well as Europe and Britain – failed and became distorted.
It wasn’t just because human beings are really dark and horrible inside – which is the normal modern explanation. It was also because all kinds of old habits of thought and ghosts from that old hierarchical world were still lodged in their minds. It doesn’t in any way excuse their actions, but it does make you realise that if you do want to change the world for the better, you have to deal with all those feelings. You have to find a way of connecting with them and transforming them. Which will be difficult – but I think it’s something a lot of modern radicals shy away from, and instead retreat into that simplified world of goodies and baddies. I think you saw that a lot in the reaction to the Brexit vote in this country.
The scope of Can’t Get You Out of My Head gives me a sort of vertigo, so I was wondering how you get started. When I’m doing a Black Mirror episode, it usually starts when I think about a moment or a funny situation in isolation – ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if such-and-such a thing happened’ – and then I start wondering how someone might actually feel in that scenario. And expanding on that gets you to the story. It’s only a bit later when I’m writing the script itself that I start to properly notice or think about what the story “means”, if it means anything.
So where did you start with this? Are you seeing moments? Is it a feeling you want to communicate? What’s your motivation? And practically, do you write notes down, start hunting for footage – what the hell do you do?
I always start with stories. Not big theories or ideas. That’s really what I spend a lot of time doing, just finding stories that grab me. For me, those moments are always real, not fictional. But it is very similar to you, because at that point I don’t know what they mean. And I know exactly what you mean about wondering how someone would feel in a situation. I remember reading about an English Black revolutionary called Michael X [he was our rather sub-standard version of Malcolm X, and a second-rate gangster] – and how he was put into prison at the height of all the 1968 protests – and then when he came out 18 months later, he found that most of the white revolutionaries had turned into hippies and didn’t want to know him any longer. I could imagine what that felt like, and how it gave him a sudden insight into the real class structure of Britain, underneath all the revolutionary rhetoric.
But that made me think this might be a good way into examining something that has been puzzling me for quite a while. Why - despite all the radical talk and the “radical culture” of the past 30 years - has nothing fundamental changed underneath our societies? The radical movements have done lots of really good things in changing people’s attitudes to each other as individuals, in feminism, gay rights and the trans movement. But what they have completely failed to do is change the underlying structure of power in Britain and America – in fact, the inequalities have got much worse. Why is it that the liberal and radical middle classes always seem to pull back from that? What is it that’s stopping them? So, for me, it’s always a story first that then opens up an unusual way into examining bigger ideas.
What about something like the Black Lives Matter movement, which is about changing individual attitudes and challenging existing power structures. Do you think there could ever be a similar movement centred on, say, financial inequality?
I think the Black Lives Matter movement is great and really significant, because it’s the first of the recent waves of protest that says clearly: this is not something that can be solved simply by persuading people to be nicer. That the racism in America and in Europe is actually a product of the corrupted and distorted structure of power in those societies. That it is built into the system as it is presently structured. And the only way to change it is to change the system. I find that encouraging, because it is a recognition of something that disappeared in the modern age of individualism – which, to be boring about it, is sociology, and a sociological view of things. It says that what people feel doesn’t just come from inside them, but quite a lot of what they feel comes from the society around them, above all where they are in the structure of power. Which means that the feelings of racism and anger come from that structure. It’s also significant that it took a group that is in many ways outside that system to bring that realisation crashing into mainstream debate. I think it’s really good. And also it’s not going to go away.
I think BLM is also really significant because many of those in the movement recognise how our collective history shapes the way we as a society feel. That the racism they are confronting doesn’t just come out of horrible individuals – it has its roots in a collective past that has reached deep into millions of people’s minds. And if you want to create a society with really free and empowered individuals, that society has to find a way of properly freeing itself from its past. I think that’s a really important thing that the BLM movement has brought into the mainstream.
But I also notice how that argument is being gently altered in the mainstream response to BLM. I see it myself inside the BBC. There are all sorts of classes and discussions about how to recognise unconscious racism and unconscious bias in oneself. Which is really good – and I think that really will change things in a big way. But it’s what I call the HR response to things. The HR response is that all problems in the system can be solved by getting someone to clear their desk – and ejecting them out of the building. What it never thinks is that maybe it’s the system that’s at fault. It is always the individual – and you manage the world by persuading people to think and feel differently – which, I repeat, is a very good idea – and if they don’t you eject them from the system.
It’s very much what happens in the feedback systems on Twitter and other social media. If you don’t like an individual and their behaviour, get them out of the system. I have this theory that large parts of the internet have become like a huge HR department. It’s the colonisation of everything by the managerial mindset.
I am nervous about saying this to you, but I do think computer games have played a very powerful role over the past 20 years in reinforcing that managerial way of seeing the world. I’m nervous because you know much more about the games than I do. But it has always seemed to me that, at some point, as well as running around and shooting and solving puzzles, games introduced this other thing. Which was that you spend a lot of time choosing and managing things – not just how you looked, but what weapons and what powers you had, and how you could balance one against the other to produce the most effective online-being for the system of the game. That computer games were one of the pillars of the modern ideology which says that the most important thing is to keep the system stable.
I’m sure you’re right about the influence of games, but I think you’re describing the front-of-house user experience, which is probably the part that’s influenced the wider world the least. Games where players are juggling equipment and abilities tend to be combat-heavy exercises in perpetual instability, and any kind of management game I’ve ever turned my hand to, where the aim is basically to build and maintain a stable system – whether it’s The Sims or Tropico, or whatever – usually ends in stressful chaos. Although maybe that just underlines why I shouldn’t be running the country.
But I agree that the principles of game design, the background structure, are popping up everywhere. A few years ago I fronted a Channel 4 list show about influential video games. They were listed chronologically, so we started with things like Pong, and the final entry on our list was Twitter, which I described as a “multiplayer online game in which you choose an avatar and role-play a persona loosely based on your own, attempting to accrue followers by pressing lettered buttons to form interesting sentences”.
At the time people sort of scoffed at that, and I was slightly taking the piss, but I do think we were right to classify it as a game, because it’s designed like one. Not just in terms of the “score” feedback, the retweets and likes and so on, but the rhythm of it, the flow of little moments of delight or disappointment, just like a Mario game. There’s a clear gameplay loop where, the more you engage, the less you want to put it down. If Twitter didn’t already exist, you could launch it today on the Steam game store as an RPG.
I don’t want to just dunk on social media, because it gives voice to people in a way that wasn’t really possible before, but its inbuilt tendency to encourage escalating, heightened speech seems guaranteed to ultimately turn a lot of users into performers, a bit disconnected from the complexity of what they feel. Sort of like the way people talk after a couple of drinks. Actually, I don’t know why I’m telling you this, because you touch on it in the series.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard the gaming term “grinding” – it’s sort of half-pejorative; it basically describes a player happily and voluntarily performing a series of repetitive tasks over and over, for hours or sometimes weeks on end, in the hope of some eventual reward. It requires some quite sinisterly well-calibrated game design to work properly. It has to feel like popping blisters on an endless sheet of bubble wrap – monotonous and fulfilling at the same time. If I had to invent a word to describe it, I’d say “emptifying”. I don’t know if it’s as evil as some people think – playing a game like that can be really soothing and oddly meditative. Like knitting. But I remember reading that these grind-y gamification principles are creeping into lots of real-life situations, like Amazon warehouse jobs, to make them feel less tedious.
Anyway, I’ll shut up about games now. I’d love to see you explore game design though.
I think that’s a brilliant observation about Twitter. That makes a lot of sense. And I really like the idea of the gamification of everything. It’s also true in politics. Do you remember that man who Tony Blair brought into be his press person – Alastair Campbell? He immediately set up a thing in Number 10 called The Rapid Response Unit. Its job whenever Blair or the government was attacked was to immediately attack back, and monster them before they had time almost to breathe. It was very Twitter before Twitter – but it also had all the attributes of a video game. Number 10 became a place under constant attack from zombies, or whatever, from outside, and you had to spend your time stopping them coming through the windows or up from the cellar. And there was never a time to relax because there would always be another wave.
It was something that Armando Iannucci captured very well in the Thick of It – that constant attack sensibility. But that mood of constant crisis that Campbell created also had another function. It was a brilliant way of hiding the fact that you as politicians didn’t have any real ideas any longer. Gamification as a way of creating a world of constant hysteria that never allows you to stop and ask, “What is this all for?”
And I think that idea of “grinding” touches on something that I know in myself. That sometimes having to do an extraordinary set of repetitive tasks is really calming. I find it when I am editing – when at points I have to do some logging or checking, which is very time consuming. It does allow you to drift into a dream state, which liberates you from all the inner voices. You lose yourself, which, in our very self-conscious age, is something quite unusual. I read a piece a while ago that argued that people’s relationship to factory work in the age of mass-production was much more complicated than we think. That of course it was depressing and exhausting, but many people also liked the repetition in a strange way precisely because it allowed them to move into another state, into a form of calming and liberation.
When you first sent me the links to watch Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I said something like, “I’m working hard to stay cheerful so I hope this isn’t going to be a downer” – and it absolutely wasn’t, by the way – but anecdotally, I’ve heard about people, faced with the pandemic and this general sense of heavy turbulence, consoling themselves with reassuring forms of escapism – binge-watching sitcoms and so on – whereas you must spend a lot of your working life spooling through footage of terrible events and reading exhaustive accounts of shattered dreams – like one of those Facebook moderators who gets PTSD after being exposed to horrifying imagery – so I was wondering how it affects your own general sense of doom, assuming you have one.
The truth is that I don’t really watch that kind of stuff. I’ve found that if you watch what are called the cut stories – that are put out on the news – then you very quickly go mad. It’s not only doomy, but you also very quickly come to realise how formal news reporting has become. Each report is the same in structure and, especially over the past ten years, in mood. There is a strange mood that has taken over a lot of journalism recently, which somehow conveys the idea that everything is really inevitable, and the best you can do is hunker down and wait for the next inevitable thing to come along.
In the face of that I went and discovered another level of reality that’s hidden in the BBC. It is all the unedited tapes from which the news stories were cut. They are extraordinary. They’re like a strange, magical world that is halfway between real life and the snippets of doom that we transmit. There are terrible things on them – but the overwhelming amount is just the record of stuff happening. I’ve got hundreds of thousands of hours of it, and the effect of watching it is incredibly calming. It sends you into that kind of dream state we talked about earlier, where you start wondering what happens to all the billions of billions of moments of experience that are never recorded. Where does that all go to? And I find myself drifting off into wondering about what other people’s experiences must have been like in the fragments I’m watching.
One of the characters in the films is a psychologist called Daniel Kahneman. He says there are two parts two the human brain. One, he calls The Experiencing Self – that just immerses itself in the onrush of experience, but has no meaning. The other is the Narrating Self – that takes a few bits of that stuff, gets rid of all the rest and turns them into stories. Stories that may have little relationship to the reality outside, but guide us through life. I do think that these days, because those who run our societies have completely run out of big stories to tell us, it means we’ve all turned into experiencing selves, lost in the waves of stuff coming at us online and outside. A bit like me gazing for hours at all the unedited stuff. I suppose what I then try and do is both evoke in the films that dream-like state, the onrush of fragments of moments, because in an odd way it is the realism of our time. It's the way people feel the world at the moment. But I also bring the narrating self to bear on all those fragments to try and make some kind of sense out of them. It’s the best you can do at the moment.
The sheer quantity of information coming at us is relatively new, though, isn’t it? I mean, if we are becoming “Experiencing Selves” it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re submitting to overwhelming torrents of stuff because of a general lack of purpose or meaning in our societies. Maybe it’s just so ubiquitous there isn’t much choice – the alternative is living in a shack like the Unabomber – and the cacophony is so disparate there’s little hope of one big inspiring story gaining a foothold anyway.
I’ve got two young kids, and the youngest, who is six, is magnetically drawn to YouTube videos in which whooping American influencers in baseball caps smash watermelons on the sidewalk or fill swimming pools with Jell-O or whatever. If we didn’t stage an almost hourly intervention he would happily watch that all day long, not even leaving his seat to void his bowels. Don’t get me wrong: he still enjoys stories, cartoons and movies, but effortless, narrative-free content in which pointless shit occurs endlessly is what really floats his boat. It fills me with horror because it looks like he’s a gleeful witness to The Ultimate Death of All Meaning. But maybe he’s just in training. Maybe the Experiencing Self is the future and there’s no going back.
Also, you say “those who run our societies have completely run out of big stories to tell us”, as though that’s a bad thing, but having watched your series it certainly looks to me like the big stories those who run our societies used to tell us generally turned out to be untrue, or too simplistic or naïve. And so did the theories underpinning those stories. And the consequence of all that storytelling and theorising was usually disappointing or terrible. So I’d be pretty suspicious of anyone who did come along touting a big grand story.
What I’m saying is you seem to be arguing in favour of meaningful change, while also illustrating how most attempts at meaningful change end in failure. Which makes for a bracing but idiosyncratic pep talk. How wrong have I got this?
I think your question about whether the “experiencing self” might be the future is really interesting. As I was editing all this I did keep on wondering whether one of the things people like me are rather desperately trying to cling onto is the idea that somehow people will always want stories in order to make sense of the world
Maybe they won’t. It may be that there is a massive shift in sensibility going on as a result of those waves of stuff online. Stuff that, as you say, has no interest in story, and is completely narrative-free. I have always been drawn to the idea that possibly the thing you think is the most fixed and absolute in the way we see things might be the real problem. Because it is never examined. And our belief in the primacy of stories might be that. It is true that people 200, 300 ago would have thought and felt completely differently from us today. Which means that people 200 years from now may have given up on all narrative and just be experiencing selves.
On the other hand, it might be a moment when all the old stories that made sense of the world are collapsing – and in that moment, before the next big story comes along, a mass of trillions and trillions of meaningless fragments rush into the vacuum, and for a brief moment in history we just are immersed in a world that is completely without meaning. And then from somewhere that we can’t possibly imagine at the moment, someone will start to reassemble all those fragments in a completely new way – and out of that will come the new big story. That actually we might be living through a moment of almost complete freedom from meaning, which is why we are so terrified and anxious. It might be like that moment in the eye of a storm. Outside, the giant forces of history roar on – but in the eye it has gone quiet and we are just experiencing, but have no story to tell each other. So in 200 years’ time people will look back at TikTok as the perfect expression of this age. And all the posh novels will be forgotten.
I’m afraid I disagree with your take that the stories I tell means that all attempts to change the world always end in failure. I would argue that that is the pessimistic ideology of our age that you are emotionally projecting on to my films. What I am trying to do in all these films is to explain why those attempts attempts to change the world failed. Because I think we are living in a moment across the world – not just in the west, but in Russian and in China too – when there is a growing yearning and demand for some kind of change. An escape from societies that have become riddled with inequalities and corruption. It’s a demand that is repeatedly knocking at the door, in all kinds of forms, from Occupy to Trump to Black Lives Matter. Which means it is really important to look back and examine what it was that went wrong, so we can learn. And one of the blocks on that idea of changing things – as I try and show throughout the films – is a view of human beings as fundamentally irrational, not fully in control of their actions, and easily manipulable. Which means that it is always too dangerous to try and change things, and instead we should just gather as much data as we can and try and keep things stable.
The other thing is the fear of big stories. And we live in a time that was born out of horror and disaster created by great sweeping narratives, both Soviet communism and fascism. That experience deeply frightened the generation that came out of the Second World War. And the world they created from the 1950s onwards was a response to that. To try and build a world free of big stories, where instead individuals would live peacefully and happily in their own stories, their own dreams. That was an extraordinary achievement – but one of the things I am arguing in the films is that that world is now decaying. And instead of confident, empowered individuals, you now have a world of anxious and uncertain individuals who are terrified of the future and live in a mood of inevitability. That there is nothing we can do – and something horrible will come along soon to replace the horrible thing that has just happened. In the face of that, more and more people want change. But I think that one of the things that is stopping that change is the failure of any group to actually describe an alternative and better kind of future. And one of the reasons for that is that they remain trapped in a mood of total distrust, constantly imagining what is being done to them as weak, manipulable individuals, rather than imagining what they as strong people can do to change the world.
But the key thing to remember is that not all big stories lead to horror. America – for all its faults – was born out of a big story. The welfare state was born out of a big story. The freedoms we have today and the idea of mass democracy and the ability we have to challenge those in power were all born out of a grand story. The science – which, in the last nine months, has done something incredible and wonderful in producing vaccines that will save millions of lives – was born out of a big story. The key thing to do is to try and work out why some big stories fail disastrously – and why some transform the world in a wonderful way.
I think that we are trapped in a time that is frightened to examine that question, because that fear of the future and the dark imaginings it has bred in our minds has gone very deep. And in these films I am trying to pull back and explain the roots of those fears and uncertainties. What we have forgotten is that we as human beings created this world that surrounds us now – not just the bad and frightening bits, but all of it. In the films I quote the great anthropologist and activist called David Graeber, who sadly died last year. He said very simply, “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make different.” I find that a thrilling idea.
You’re probably right about pessimistic projection. You tweaked the ending a little, and after seeing the new one in particular and reflecting on it all a bit more, I’d say overall this is one of the most hopeful pieces I’ve seen you do. Maybe “hopeful” isn’t quite the right word. Galvanising? Inspiring?
You mentioned a global sense of “yearning” just then, and I think there’s a palpable sense of yearning in your work. And a focus on people’s alienation and loneliness. Which can feel like an underlying sadness. Not sure if you’d agree with that.
I think that feeling of “yearning” and of describing a sadness is central to many of the films I’ve done. But funnily enough, I also think it is at the centre of a lot of what you’ve done – not just with Black Mirror, but with your reporting on people’s disenchantment and suspicion of what they are being told.
We are both charting – in very different ways – how in the age of the individual, where people were supposed to become confident and empowered, actually more and more people became uncertain and distrustful. I think it is one of the big dynamics of our time, and it comes out of the fault-line that was built into the very heart of individualism. If you are taught that the only thing you can truly trust is your own individual experience, then you find yourself increasingly helpless at understanding and judging things that are beyond your direct experience. You have no benchmark by which to measure them, because you have given up trusting the old snobby patrician class. But that then just accelerates the distrust. Out of which come all the waves of conspiracy theories.
The roots of that lie back in the 1970s, with people who spotted it early on as individualism was rising up – above all the novelist Philip K Dick. And also, before him, The Twilight Zone. That sense that even reality can’t be trusted because you have nothing to measure it by except yourself. And if you can’t even trust yourself then everything begins to dissolve. That feeling or mood is something you evoke beautifully and very powerfully in Black Mirror. And it has come to be, I think, the defining mood of our time. Millions of people now feel like that. I have charted the rise of that same feeling in series I did, like the Century of the Self – what happened to the dream of the empowered self that would be at the centre of the world expressing its own dreams and desires. How that glorious vision transformed into a loss of confidence. That you can’t trust others or even know what’s going on. I also charted in other films how that same anxiety and distrust took over the political class too. The growing sense they had that the world was too complex for them to understand, let alone shape the way they wanted. So they gave up and turned to dark visions of the future. Which meant we distrusted them even more.
But when you talked of sadness, I think that is also very important. Because underlying that growth of distrust is also a deep melancholy throughout the West. It’s a nostalgia for the certainty that we as individuals used to have. I am very aware that in many of the films I have made I have been describing that feeling of melancholy both consciously and unconsciously. I evoke it in some of the moodier bits I put in the films. I used a David Bowie song in Bitter Lake deliberately to try and express that mood, because I think he was one of the early people to also get what was going in people’s heads. And every now and then I sense that same sadness in Black Mirror. In a way it’s inevitable, because I think both of us as journalists are describing a very anxious and uncertain time – and it’s really good to try and work out where those feelings come from, as much as the external facts of politics and power.
And I’m sorry to go back to video games – but I do think they are often about that. There is that same melancholy underneath many of them. The person I really admire who gets this is one of the two brothers who created Rockstar games, Dan Houser. I found a fantastic quote from him about the GTA V game:
“LA is the embodiment of 20th century desires: the houses, the gardens, the tans, all slightly fake. It’s the end of the western world – the sun sets and then it’s tomorrow. But the industry is movies or, equally, phone, real estate. It’s people trying to escape their pasts and reinvent themselves. If GTA IV was a classic New York story, this is the endpoint of the American dream.”
But of course really what I could be charting is the melancholy at the heart of a privileged white class who realises that power is slipping away from them. But they can’t bear to admit that, so they say the whole world is collapsing. Narcissists.
You include loads of playful moments and little editing jokes too. In this, there were a couple of moments that made me laugh out loud. I wonder if sometimes people miss the humour, which I think is one of the things that makes your stuff unique. Do you actively seek those moments out – do you think of it structurally, like, ‘I should lighten the tone a little here, sweeten the pill,’ or is it more that you stumble across them and can’t resist putting them in?
It’s not so much humour – rather silliness. But I never put in silliness for structural reasons. Only when something I see makes me laugh. It doesn’t always have to make sense in the narrative. I like that feeling – of just putting something in, like an aside that people might or might not spot.
And on top of that there’s your voice, which has a soothing, Oliver-Postgate-narrating-Bagpuss tone to it (I think both your voice and his hover tonally halfway between melancholy and a warm mug of cocoa). It’s quite hypnotic and would be great in an advert. Have you ever been approached to be the voice of Oxo cubes or anything? You want to monetise that, mate.
No one has ever asked me to do a voice over. What I tend to get are bands and singers wanting me to do music videos.
I’m guessing you’ve seen the parodies, things like the Adam Curtis Bingo Card, where people are – I think affectionately – listing some of your stylistic quirks. How do you feel about those?
I really like the parodies when they are good. That one called The Loving Trap I loved, because it was so sharp. It spotted that really it was the voice. It was just really well done. I liked the bingo cards when they started, but now lots of people seem to have bingo cards, so I feel a little less interested. Are there Black Mirror parodies?
God yes. In fact I’ve probably written several myself, inadvertently, as episodes of the series. Daniel M. Lavery summed up some of the early episodes with the phrase “What If Phones But Too Much”, which made me laugh, so I wrote an episode with almost precisely that plot in a cowardly attempt to co-opt the burn. I think I asked about the moments of silliness in your work earlier because when it comes to Black Mirror I think overseas viewers who don’t know me from the comedy stuff and the Wipe shows sometimes assume I’m a phone-hating Luddite who takes himself far too seriously.
Mentioning Black Mirror reminds me – quite a few of the political figures throughout your series deploy, I would say cynically, a form of weaponised nationalistic faux-nostalgia to achieve their aims. I had a Black Mirror idea I haven’t expanded upon yet because it stepped on other episodes, and I haven’t quite worked out how to make it more than a sketch, but basically the premise was that it’s about 20 years from now and Britain’s facing ruin, so the government decides to sell the country and all its resources to the highest bidder, but part of the agreement is that the country has to be empty – like a vacated house – so the entire population has to digitise and euthanise itself and get uploaded into a sort of virtual Backup Britain that exists only in the cloud. And the problem is that no one can quite agree on which version of Britain they want to exist in: quaint 1950s village-duckpond-Dixon-of-Dock-Green era Britain, or metrosexual multicultural futuristic Britain, or something else entirely, maybe even a hybrid ultra-personalised Britain created just for you, in which everyone else is just a non-player-character. And of course a lot of people refuse to take part at all. Where do you think you’d fall?
Dunno. Makes my brain hurt just trying to think. Of course, the proper Black Mirror response is to say, “How do I know I’m not in it already?” Which raises the question: who chose this version? And where do they live?
Didcot. They live in Didcot.
Since our last response, I’ve been thinking about what you said about “a weaponised faux nostalgia”. It is completely fake – but as I try and show in the films, that dream of England has gone very deep inside the head of millions of the English people. It doesn’t really come from the empire, but from the time after that, when the empire was collapsing. And it’s a strange, rural, almost feudal picture of England. And it has wormed its way deep into the minds not just of the people who voted for Brexit, but it also possesses the minds of those who hate the Brexiteers, many nice liberal middle class people as well.
In the films I show how the first Glastonbury Festival was held in 1920, and was full of that vision. And it has kept going underneath our society in all kinds of ways. The hippies expressed it vividly. It also helped shape the environmental movement in England into something suffused with nostalgia. Unlike the far more radical and effective environmental movements in Germany and America. And I think you also see it in the sadness of those who were so shocked by the Brexit vote. They had for a long time felt that we are a country where the little people have always been looked after by a caring benign elite. But their shock at the vote was so intense because it stripped that all away. How could they have turned round like this and bitten us? How could a country have come to this? Again, it’s an angry melancholy.
But I do think that although it’s very faux – that vision is deep in millions of people’s minds, and the problem for the left and for progressive liberals is that they are terrified to go near it, or even acknowledge it exists. But they are only going to get real power if they access that powerful set of emotions. They could then reshape them and try and change how people feel – but first they have to go and talk to some people they are very frightened of. And I think the story you outlined would be a very clever way of exploring all that. I like it.
Sticking with the future, what are you doing next? Do you have any idea?
The future. I don’t know. The only thing in my head is a conviction that our fascination with modern technology and the internet may go very quickly. It doesn’t mean the internet will disappear – but it will just become suddenly seen as mundane. And not threatening. And quite a lot of it a bit of a con. But I’ve got no idea what lies beyond that. I suppose that’s the next thing to try and find out.
Watch ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World’ on BBC iPlayer now.