Adam Curtis

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Adam Curtis
Adam Curtis
Born (1955-05-26) 26 May 1955 (age 59)
Nationality United Kingdom
Occupation Documentarian
Known for The Century of the Self

Kevin Adam Curtis (born 1955) is an English film maker. His best known work is The Century of the Self (2002), a film that examined how Freud's theories of the unconscious shaped the development of public relations and advertising. He says, "My favourite theme is power and how it works in society", and his works explore areas of sociology, philosophy and political history.[1] He describes his work as journalism that happens to be expounded upon through the medium of film. His films have won three BAFTAs. He has been closely associated with the BBC throughout his film making career.


Curtis was born in 1955 as Kevin Adam Curtis in Kent.[2] His father was Martin Curtis (10 August 1917 – January 2002), a cinematographer from Sevenoaks in Kent who worked with Humphrey Jennings.[1] His family had a left wing background.[3] Curtis attended the Sevenoaks School on a county scholarship.[4]

Curtis completed a Bachelor of Arts in Human Sciences at Mansfield College, Oxford, which included courses in genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology, politics, anthropology and statistics. He started a PhD, during which he tutored in Politics, but while on the course became disillusioned with academia.[3]

He applied to the BBC, and was hired to make a film for one of the BBC training courses, comparing designer clothes in pop music videos to the design of weapons. He subsequently obtained a post on That's Life!, a programme that often placed serious and humorous content in close juxtaposition.


Of his general political outlook, Curtis has said:

People often accuse me of being a lefty. That's complete rubbish. If you look at The Century of the Self, what I'm arguing is something very close to a neo-conservative position because I'm saying that, with the rise of individualism, you tend to get the corrosion of the other idea of social bonds and communal networks, because everyone is on their own. Well, that's what the neo-conservatives argue, domestically...If you ask me what my politics are, I'm very much a creature of my time. I don't really have any. I change my mind over different issues, but I am much more fond of a libertarian view. I have a more libertarian tendency...[1]


Curtis "trademark" titles

Curtis cites John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy, which he first read aged 13, as the greatest influence on his film making.[1]

You can trace back everything I do to that novel because it's all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers. And it's about collage of history as well. That's where I get it all from.[1]

Other influences include Robert Rauschenberg,[1] Émile Zola,[1] and Max Weber[5]

Curtis makes extensive use of archive footage in his documentaries. He has acknowledged the influence of recordings made by Erik Durschmied and to "constantly using his stuff in my films".[6] An Observer profile said of Curtis' style:

Curtis has a remarkable feel for the serendipity of such moments, and an obsessive skill in locating them. "That kind of footage shows just how dull I can be," he admits, a little glumly. "The BBC has an archive of all these tapes where they have just dumped all the news items they have ever shown. One tape for every three months. So what you get is this odd collage, an accidental treasure trove. You sit in a darkened room, watch all these little news moments, and look for connections."[7]

The Observer adds "if there has been a theme in Curtis's work since, it has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragicomic consequences of those attempts."[7]


Curtis received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2005.[8] In 2006 he was given the Alan Clarke Award for Outstanding Contribution to Television at the British Academy Television Awards. In 2009 Sheffield Doc/Fest awarded Curtis the inaugural Sheffield Inspiration Award for his inspiration to documentary makers and audiences.


Since 2004 Curtis has hosted a blog on the BBC website. He has tentative plans to expand the offering.[1]


Year Documentary Subject Parts Broadcast on Awards
1983 Just Another Day: Walton on the Naze Various long-standing British institutions.
1983 The Tuesday Documentary: Trumpets and Typewriters The history of war correspondents.
1984 Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster.[9] The system-built housing of the 1960s.
1984 Italians: Mayor of Montemilone The politics of a small Italian town and its communist mayor Dino Labriola. 1
1984 The Cost of Treachery The Albanian Subversion, a 1949 plot in which the CIA and MI6 attempted to overthrow the Albanian government to weaken the Soviet Union. The counter-agent within the intelligence rank, Kim Philby.
1987 40 Minutes: Bombay Hotel The luxurious Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai, contrasted with the poverty of the slums of the city.
1988 An Ocean Apart The process by which the United States was involved in the First World War. Episode One: "Hats Off to Mr. Wilson".
1989 40 Minutes: The Kingdom of Fun Documentary about the Metro Centre in Gateshead, developed by entrepreneur John Hall. The programme compares John Hall's plans to regenerate the North East, with those of T. Dan Smith.
1989 Inside Story: The Road To Terror How the Iranian Revolution turned from idealism to terror. Draws parallels with the French Revolution two hundred years earlier.
1992 Pandora's Box The dangers of technocratic and political rationality. 6 BAFTA: Best Factual Series [1][dead link]
1995 The Living Dead The way that history and memory (both national and individual) have been used by politicians and others. 3
1996 25 Million Pounds Nick Leeson and the collapse of Barings Bank. San Francisco International Film Festival, 1998: Best Science and Nature Documentary
1997 Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh The story, dating back to the 1950s, of the search for a cure to cancer and the impact of Henrietta Lacks, the "woman who will never die" because her cells never stopped reproducing. Golden Gate Award, 1997[10]
1999 The Mayfair Set How buccaneer capitalists were allowed to shape the climate of the Thatcher years, focusing on the rise of Colonel David Stirling, Jim Slater, James Goldsmith, and Tiny Rowland, all members of The Clermont club in the 1960s. 4 BAFTA, 2000: Best Factual Series or Strand[11]
2002 The Century of the Self How Freud's theories concerning the unconscious led to Edward Bernays' development of public relations, the use of desire over need and self-actualisation as a means of achieving economic growth and the political control of population. 4 BBC Four, art house cinemas in the US Broadcast Award: Best Documentary Series; Longman/History Today Awards: Historical Film of the Year; Entertainment Weekly, 2005: fourth best movie
2004 The Power of Nightmares Suggested a parallel between the rise of Islamism in the Arab world and Neoconservatism in the United States in that both needed to inflate a myth of a dangerous enemy to draw people to support them. 3 BBC Two BAFTA, 2004: Best Factual Series[12]
2007 The Trap – What Happened to our Dream of Freedom The modern concept of freedom. Archived December 23, 2007 at the Wayback Machine 3 BBC Two
2007 Television news reporters. 1 Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, third episode of the fourth series
2009 The rise of "Oh Dear"-ism. 1 Charlie Brooker's Newswipe, third episode of the first series
2009 It Felt Like a Kiss[13] Mixed media.[14] Broadcast 2 July. 1
2010 Paranoia and moral panics. 1 Charlie Brooker's Newswipe, fourth episode of the second series
2011 All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace The computer as a model of the world around us. 3 BBC Two[15][16]
2011 Every Day is Like Sunday The rise and fall of newspaper tycoon Cecil King, and the changing relationship between the public, politics and the media. 1 The Medium and the Message, his personal blog. This is not an officially released documentary but "a rough cut".[17]
2013 Everything is Going According to Plan[18] (Massive Attack V Adam Curtis) Collaboration with Massive Attack, mixed media. Themed around technocrats and global corporations establishing an ultra-conservative norm, with the internet providing a "fake, enchanting world, which has become a kind of prison".[19] 1 Performed as part of the Manchester International Festival
2014 Out There, At the Mountains of Madness, and Dream Baby Dream[20] Curtis will make three iPlayer-only films exploring themes of hypocrisy, deception and corruption in contemporary Britain – Out There, At the Mountains of Madness, and Dream Baby Dream.[21] 3 BBC iPlayer


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Interview: Adam Curtis by Chris Dark on 15 September 2011, Film Society of Lincoln Center, published 17 July. 2012
  2. ^ Search birth records 1837–2006 | Fully indexed birth records |
  3. ^ a b In Conversation with Adam Curtis, Part I | e-flux
  4. ^ The Telegraph Interview
  5. ^ "Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation with Adam Curtis". e-flux. Retrieved 8 February 2013. 
  6. ^ BBC – Adam Curtis Blog: GOODIES AND BADDIES
  7. ^ a b Adams, Tim (24 October 2004). "The Exorcist". London: The Observer. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  8. ^ Adam Curtis, San Francisco International Film Festival
  9. ^ "The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 6 July 2009. 
  10. ^ "San Francisco Film Society". Retrieved 6 July 2009. 
  11. ^ "BAFTA: Winners 2000". Archived from the original on 19 October 2004. Retrieved 6 July 2009. 
  12. ^ "Past Winners and Nominees (2004)". BAFTA. Retrieved 6 July 2009. 
  13. ^ "Adam Curtis". BBC. Archived from the original on 24 June 2009. Retrieved 6 July 2009. 
  14. ^ Appleyard, Bryan (28 June 2009). "Adam Curtis: TV's great documentary maker". The Times (London). Retrieved 6 July 2009. 
  15. ^ ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE – Adam Curtis Blog – BBC, 10 May 2011
  16. ^ TV review: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – The Guardian, 23 May 2011
  17. ^ "Every Day is like Sunday". BBC. Retrieved 6 August 2011. 
  18. ^ Adams, Tim (7 July 2013). "Massive Attack v Adam Curtis – review". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 18 July 2013. 
  19. ^ Dave Simpson (5 July 2013). "Massive Attack v Adam Curtis – review". The Guardian (London). 
  20. ^ "BBC iPlayer: major upgrade to include exclusive content from Boyle and Curtis". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  21. ^ Jason Deans (13 March 2014). "BBC iPlayer: major upgrade to include exclusive content from Boyle and Curtis". The Guardian (London). 

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