Adam Curtis

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Adam Curtis
Curtis in 2005
Kevin Adam Curtis

(1955-05-26) 26 May 1955 (age 69)
Dartford, Kent, England
EducationMansfield College, Oxford (BA)
OccupationDocumentary filmmaker
Years active1983–present
Awards4 BAFTAs

Adam Curtis (born 26 May 1955) is an English documentary filmmaker.[1]

Curtis began his career as a conventional documentary producer for the BBC throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. The release of Pandora's Box (1992) marked the introduction of Curtis's distinctive presentation that uses collage to explore aspects of sociology, psychology, philosophy and political history.[2]

His style has been described as involving, "whiplash digressions, menacing atmospherics and arpeggiated scores, and the near-psychedelic compilation of archival footage", narrated by Curtis himself with "patrician economy and assertion".[3] His films have won five BAFTAs.

Early life[edit]

Adam Curtis was born in Dartford in Kent,[4] and raised in nearby Platt.[5] His father was Martin Curtis (1917–2002), a cinematographer with a socialist background.[2][6]

Curtis won a county scholarship and attended the Sevenoaks School. It was there that an influential art teacher introduced him to the work of Robert Rauschenberg.[7]

Curtis completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in human sciences at Mansfield College, Oxford. He began a PhD and taught in politics, but ultimately became disillusioned with academia and decided to leave the profession.[6]


Early career[edit]

Curtis applied to the BBC and was hired to make a film for one of its training courses, comparing designer clothes in music videos to the design of weapons. He was subsequently given a post on That's Life!,[1] a magazine series that juxtaposed hard-hitting investigations and light-hearted content. He was a film director on Out of Court, a BBC Two legal series, from 1980 until 1982.[8]


Curtis is inspired by the sociologist Max Weber, who, he argues, challenged the "crude, left-wing, vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society".[6] Curtis has answered questions on his politics in interviews over his career but has answered inconsistently, making it hard to label his politics.

In a 2012 interview, Curtis remarked on his political outlook stating fondness for libertarian ideas but states his politics are unique and differ depending on the issue. Curtis also rejects being labelled a leftist, calling the idea ‘rubbish’, saying:

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 neoconservative 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 neoconservatives 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 [...] What's astonishing in our time is how the Left here has completely failed to come up with any alternatives, and I think you may well see a lefty libertarianism emerging because people will be much more sympathetic to it, or just a libertarianism, and out of that will come ideas. And I don't mean "localism".[2]

In a 2021 interview, Curtis stated having sympathies to radicalism and that progressivism is his politics. He notes again his political inconsistency, saying:

I'm emotionally sympathetic to radicalism [...] I'm a progressive, I mean that's really what my politics are. I mean, I'm typical of my time, I don't have a consistent set of politics and I always suspect people who do, but I'm progressive so I try and understand what went wrong with radicalism.[9]

In a 2022 interview, Curtis reiterated the neoconservative interpretation of "The Century of the Self", but added it's not what he himself believes. This time, Curtis states that he doesn’t know his exact politics, saying:

[The Century of the Self could be interpreted as] a crystal perfect piece of neoconservative ideology, domestic neoconservatism, because what it's actually arguing is the rise of individualism acted like an acid eating away at the fabric of social organisations... which is a sort of moralistic neocon attitude. That's not actually what I think. But you could argue that about most films, I think. I don't know really what my politics are.[10]


Example of Curtis's "trademark" title screens (Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh, 1997)

Curtis cites the U.S.A. trilogy, a series of three novels by John Dos Passos that he first read when he was thirteen, as the greatest influence on his work:

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.[2]

Other creative influences are Robert Rauschenberg and Émile Zola.[2] Curtis makes extensive use of archive footage in his documentaries. He has acknowledged the influence of recordings made by Erik Durschmied and is "constantly using his stuff in my films".[11]

Discussing his process in an interview with fellow documentary-maker Jon Ronson for Vice, Curtis said his extensive work with footage acquired from the BBC Archives is often led by 'instinct and imagination', with the aim of creating 'a mood that gives power and force to the story I'm telling'.[12]

Instead of specially composed music, which Curtis has said "creates a sort of monoculture", he uses tracks from a variety of genres, decades, and countries, as well as sound effects that he discovers on old tapes.[13]

According to a profile of Curtis by Tim Adams, published in The Observer: "If there has been a theme in Curtis's work ... 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".[14]

In 2005, Curtis received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.[15] In 2006, he was given the Alan Clarke Award for Outstanding Creative Contribution to Television at the British Academy Television Awards.[16] In 2009, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival gave Curtis the Inspiration Award for inspiring viewers and other documentary filmmakers.[17] In 2015, he was awarded the True Vision Award by the True/False Film Fest.[18]

Curtis's critics have accused him of exaggeration and distortion, even wilful misrepresentation.[19][20]


Curtis administered a blog subtitled 'The Medium and the Message' hosted by the BBC and updated between 2009 and 2016.[21]


Year Title Subject Parts Channel/Venue Notes & Awards
1983 Just Another Day: "Selfridges" Behind the scenes at Selfridges, a department store on Oxford Street, London.[22] S01E03 BBC Two, 29 March 1983[23]
1983 Just Another Day: "The Seaside" A typical day in Walton-on-the-Naze.[24] S01E06 BBC Two, 19 April 1983[25]
1983 Trumpets and Typewriters: A History of War Reporting The history of war correspondents. BBC One, 19 July 1983[26]
1984 Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster.[27] The system-built housing of the 1960s. Narrated by David Jones.[28] BBC Two, 4 September 1984[29]
1984 Italians: "The Mayor of Montemilone" The politics of a small Italian town and its communist mayor, Dino Labriola.[30] S01E04 BBC One, 26 October 1984[31]
1984 The Cost of Treachery The Albanian Subversion, in which the CIA and MI6 attempted to overthrow the Albanian government and to weaken the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in 1949, and the role of double agent Kim Philby. BBC One, 30 October 1984[32]
1987 40 Minutes: "Bombay Hotel" The luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, contrasted with the poverty of the city's slums. BBC Two, 30 April 1987[33]
1988 An Ocean Apart Explores the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States from World War I to the 1980s. 7 BBC One, 20 April 1988[34]
1989 40 Minutes: "The Kingdom of Fun" Documentary about the Metro Centre in Gateshead, developed by entrepreneur John Hall. It compares Hall's plans to regenerate North East England with those of Labour politician T. Dan Smith. BBC Two, 19 January 1989[35]
1989 Inside Story: "The Road to Terror" How the Iranian Revolution turned from idealism to terror, drawing parallels with the French Revolution two hundred years earlier. E06 BBC One, 14 June 1989[36]
1992 Pandora's Box The dangers of technocratic and political rationality. 6 BBC Two, 11 June 1992[37] Originality and Best Factual Series, BAFTA Awards 1993[38]
1995 The Living Dead The different ways that history and memory (both national and individual) have been used and manipulated by politicians and others. 3 BBC Two, 30 May 1995[39]
1996 £830,000,000 – Nick Leeson and the Fall of the House of Barings Nick Leeson and the collapse of Barings Bank. BBC One, 12 June 1996[40] An Inside Story special. Later titled 25 Million Pounds.
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. BBC Two, 19 March 1997[41]
1999 The Mayfair Set Looks at the birth of the global arms trade, the invention of asset stripping, and how buccaneer capitalists shaped the Thatcher years, focusing on the rise of Colonel David Stirling, Jim Slater, Sir James Goldsmith and Tiny Rowland—members of the elite Clermont Club in the 1960s. 4 BBC Two, 18 July 1999[42] Best Factual Series or Strand, BAFTA Awards 2000[43]
2002 The Century of the Self How Freud's theories on the unconscious led to the development of public relations by his nephew Edward Bernays; the use of desire over need; and self-actualisation as a means of achieving economic growth and the political control of populations. 4 BBC Two, 17 March 2002;[44] art-house cinemas in the U.S. Best Documentary Series, Broadcast Awards;[45] Historical Film of the Year, Longman-History Today Awards;[46] Nominated for Best Documentary Series, Royal Television Society[47]
2004 The Power of Nightmares Suggests a parallel between the rise of Islamism in the Arab world and neoconservatism in the United States, and their mutual need, argues Curtis, to create the myth of a dangerous enemy to gain support. 3 BBC Two, 20 October 2004[48] Best Factual Series or Strand, BAFTA Awards 2005[49]
2007 The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom Explores the modern concept of freedom, specifically, "how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic creatures led to today's idea of freedom". 3 BBC Two, 7 March 2007[50]
2007 The Rise and Fall of the TV Journalist Short film chronicling the transformation of mainstream media and the balance of political power in the last few decades by looking at how the role of the broadcast journalist has changed since the 1950s.[51] Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, third episode of the fourth series
2009 Oh Dearism Short film about how mainstream media simplify complex events and present them as "scattered terrible things happening everywhere, Oh Dear", leaving the public feeling powerless to do anything about them.[51] Charlie Brooker's Newswipe, third episode of the first series
2009 It Felt Like a Kiss[52] Collaboration with theatre company Punchdrunk and Damon Albarn.[53] Manchester International Festival
2010 Paranoia and Moral Panics Short film using the paranoia of Richard Nixon to explore how a similar outlook on life has been propagated on a larger social scale in the new media age and the resulting moral panics and immobilisation of politics.[51] Charlie Brooker's Newswipe, fourth episode of the second series
2011 All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace Argues that computers have failed to liberate humanity, and instead have "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us". The title is taken from a 1967 poem of the same name by Richard Brautigan. 3 BBC Two, 23 May 2011[54]
2011 Every Day Is Like Sunday The rise and fall of press baron Cecil King, and the changing relationship between the public, politics and the media. His personal blog; not a full documentary, but "a rough cut".[55]
2013 Everything Is Going According to Plan (Massive Attack v Adam Curtis)[56] Collaboration with Massive Attack. Based on technocrats and global corporations establishing an ultraconservative norm, with the internet providing a "fake, enchanting world, which has become a kind of prison".[57] Manchester International Festival
2014 Oh Dearism II Short film examining the global events of 2014 to reveal a chaotic morass, the reporting of which is increasingly difficult to comprehend in the context of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet (special feature on Russian Vladislav Surkov).[51] Charlie Brooker's 2014 Wipe, 30 December 2014
2015 Bitter Lake[58] How Western leaders' simplistic good vs. evil narrative has failed in the complex post-war era, and how many Islamic terrorist groups have their origins in the U.S.'s long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia. BBC iPlayer, 25 January 2015[59]
2016 Living in an Unreal World Short film for Vice Media about the illusion of stability, freedom, and prosperity in the West, comparing it to life in the Soviet Union during the 1970s. Ends with a trailer for HyperNormalisation.[60] VICE (Facebook), 15 October 2016[61]
2016 HyperNormalisation "How we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion where those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed and have no idea what to do". BBC iPlayer, 16 October 2016[62] Nominated for Best Single Documentary, BAFTA Awards 2017[63]
2017 MK Ultra Dance collaboration with Rosie Kay Dance Company. Explores project MKUltra and conspiracy theories including the Illuminati, themes later reworked into Can't Get You Out of My Head.[64][65][66] Live performance. Commissioned by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, DanceXchange, Warwick Arts Centre & HOME[67]
2019 Untitled Collaboration with Massive Attack. "How we have moved into a strange backward-looking world, enclosed by machines that read our data and predict our every move, haunted by ghosts from the past".[68] Mezzanine XXI tour
2021 Can't Get You Out of My Head A six-part BBC documentary series that "tells the story of how we got to the strange days we are now experiencing. And why both those in power – and we – find it so difficult to move on". It "explores whether modern culture, despite its radicalism, is really just part of the new system of power".[69] 6 BBC iPlayer, 11 February 2021[70]
2022 Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone[71] Seven hour-long films about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and subsequent rise to power of Vladimir Putin as the President of Russia, seen through the eyes of Russian people at every level of society. 7 Premiered at Telluride Film Festival, 2022[72]

BBC iPlayer, 13 October 2022[73]

Best Specialist Factual, BAFTA Awards 2023[74]
2024 The Way 3 part drama series co-created by Curtis.[75] 3 BBC One


  1. ^ a b Andrew Anthony (4 January 2015). "Adam Curtis: Cult film-maker with an eye for the unsettling". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 March 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e Darke, Chris (17 July 2012). "Interview: Adam Curtis." Film Comment. Archived from the original.
  3. ^ Jacobson, Gavin (15 February 2021). "Adam Curtis: "Big Tech and Big Data have been completely useless in this crisis"". New Statesman. Retrieved 15 February 2021.
  4. ^ Adams, Tim (9 October 2016). "Adam Curtis continues search for the hidden forces behind a century of chaos". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  5. ^ Lethem, Jonathan (27 October 2016). "Adam Curtis and the Secret History of Everything". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  6. ^ a b c "In Conversation with Adam Curtis, Part I". e-flux. February 2012.
  7. ^ "Adam Curtis: The Perils of Binary Thinking". The Telegraph. 20 May 2011.
  8. ^ "Search results for 'Out of Court', 'Adam Curtis'". BBC Genome. BBC. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  9. ^ Khachiyan, Anna; Nekrasova, Dasha (16 February 2021). "Red Scare Podcast: "Cant Get You Out Of My Head" Adam Curtis Interview (Excerpt)". Red Scare Podcast. Archived from the original on 19 February 2021.
  10. ^ Roussinos, Aris (7 December 2022). "Adam Curtis and the death of autocracy". UnHerd. Retrieved 14 June 2023.
  11. ^ "BBC - Adam Curtis Blog: Goodies and Baddies". BBC Blogs. 28 March 2011.
  12. ^ Ronson, Jon (16 January 2015). "Jon Ronson in Conversation with Adam Curtis". Vice. Retrieved 11 October 2022.
  13. ^ Gavin Miller (15 December 2011). "It's the inner DJ in me: Ghosting Season meet film maker Adam Curtis". Drowned in Sound. Archived from the original on 29 October 2016. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  14. ^ Adams, Tim (24 October 2004). "The Exorcist". The Observer. Retrieved 17 February 2010.
  15. ^ "SF Int'l Film Festival - Awards & Tributes - Adam Curtis". Archived from the original on 17 January 2006.
  16. ^ "2006 Television Alan Clarke Award - BAFTA Awards". BAFTA. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  17. ^ "Sheffield Doc/Fest Award Winners". Archived from the original on 16 June 2018. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  18. ^ "Adam Curtis is the 2015 True Vision Award Recipient". True/False Film Fest. 3 February 2015. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  19. ^ Adam Curtis's paranoia - Max Steuer, Prospect (magazine)
  20. ^ HyperNormalisation: Is Adam Curtis, Like Trump, Just A Master Manipulator? - Phil Harrison, The Quietus
  21. ^ Adam Curtis - The Medium and the Message - his personal blog at BBC Online
  22. ^ "Selfridges." IMDb.
  23. ^ "Just Another Day: Selfridges - BBC Two England - 29 March 1983". The Radio Times (3098): 47. 24 March 1983. Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  24. ^ "The Seaside." IMDb.
  25. ^ "Just Another Day: The Seaside - BBC Two England - 19 April 1983". The Radio Times (3101): 45. 14 April 1983. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  26. ^ "Trumpets and Typewriters - BBC One London - 19 July 1983". The Radio Times (3114): 45. 14 July 1983.
  27. ^ "The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 5 October 2016. Retrieved 6 July 2009.
  28. ^ The Great British Housing Disaster (TV Movie 1984). IMDb.
  29. ^ "Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster - BBC Two England - 4 September 1984". The Radio Times (3173): 41. 30 August 1984.
  30. ^ "The Mayor of Montemilone". IMDb.
  31. ^ "Italians - BBC One London - 26 October 1984". The Radio Times (3180): 103. 18 October 1984.
  32. ^ "The Cost of Treachery - BBC One London - 30 October 1984". The Radio Times (3181): 62. 25 October 1984.
  33. ^ "40 Minutes - BBC Two England - 30 April 1987". The Radio Times (3309): 62. 23 April 1987.
  34. ^ "An Ocean Apart - BBC One London - 20 April 1988". The Radio Times (3359): 69. 14 April 1988.
  35. ^ "40 Minutes - BBC Two England - 19 January 1989". The Radio Times (3397): 65. 12 January 1989.
  36. ^ "Inside Story - BBC One London - 14 June 1989". The Radio Times (3418): 42. 8 June 1989.
  37. ^ "Pandora's Box - BBC Two England - 11 June 1992". The Radio Times (3571): 76. 4 June 1992.
  38. ^ "1993 Television - BAFTA Awards". BAFTA.
  39. ^ "The Living Dead - BBC Two England - 30 May 1995". The Radio Times (3723): 82. 25 May 1995.
  40. ^ "Inside Story Special - BBC One London - 12 June 1996". The Radio Times (3776): 104. 6 June 1996.
  41. ^ "Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh - BBC Two England - 19 March 1997". The Radio Times (3815): 92. 13 March 1997.
  42. ^ "The Mayfair Set - BBC Two England - 18 July 1999". The Radio Times (3935): 64. 15 July 1999.
  43. ^ "2000 Television Factual Series or Strand - BAFTA Awards". BAFTA.
  44. ^ "The Century of the Self - BBC Two England - 17 March 2002". The Radio Times (4071): 86. 14 March 2002.
  45. ^ "BBC cleans up at Broadcast Awards 2003". Broadcast. 30 January 2003. Retrieved 22 October 2015. The BBC also won best single doc for 9/11 - A Firefighters' Story and best series, The Century of the Self, while BBC Films took best single drama for Out of Control.
  46. ^ "Back to Narrative at the History Today Awards". History Today. 3 March 2003. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  47. ^ "Programme Awards Winners 2002". Royal Television Society. 14 March 2011. Retrieved 23 October 2015.[permanent dead link]
  48. ^ "The Power of Nightmares - BBC Two England - 20 October 2004". The Radio Times (4204): 100. 14 October 2004.
  49. ^ "2005 Television Factual Series or Strand - BAFTA Awards". BAFTA.
  50. ^ "The Trap - What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom - BBC Two England - 11 March 2007". The Radio Times (4326): 76. 8 March 2007.
  51. ^ a b c d Thoughtmaybe: Films by Adam Curtis. Accessed Aug. 9, 2016.
  52. ^ "BBC - Adam Curtis Blog: It Felt Like A Kiss: The Film". BBC Blogs. 15 December 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  53. ^ "The Culture Show - BBC Two England - 8 July 2009". The Radio Times (4445): 84. 2 July 2009.
  54. ^ Wollaston, Sam (23 May 2011). "TV review: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace". The Guardian.
  55. ^ Curtis, Adam (Jul. 27, 2011). "Every Day Is Like Sunday" (blog post). Adam Curtis: The Medium and the Message (blog) at BBC. Archived from the original.
  56. ^ "Massive Attack v Adam Curtis (review)". The Observer. 7 July 2013. Retrieved 18 July 2013.
  57. ^ "Massive Attack v Adam Curtis (review)". The Guardian. 5 July 2013.
  58. ^ MacInnes, Paul (24 January 2015). "Adam Curtis: 'I try to make the complexity and chaos intelligible'". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  59. ^ "Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake". BBC iPlayer. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  60. ^ Adam Curtis (15 October 2016). "Watch a short film Adam Curtis made for VICE about your life". Vice Media. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  61. ^ VICE (Oct. 15, 2016). "Living in an Unreal World: A Film By Adam Curtis For Readers of VICE" (Facebook post).
  62. ^ "Adam Curtis' new film HyperNormalisation to premiere on BBC iPlayer this October". BBC. 22 September 2016. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  63. ^ "Television in 2017 | BAFTA Awards". BAFTA.
  64. ^ Mackrell, Judith (21 April 2017). "MK Ultra review – Adam Curtis doc dominates Rosie Kay's Illuminati dance." The Guardian.
  65. ^ "'Television is so rigid': Adam Curtis on his first dance work". 13 March 2017. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  66. ^ Stone, Bryony (7 November 2018). "adam curtis is making an illuminati-themed entrance into the dance world". i-D. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  67. ^ "MK ULTRA". HOME. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  68. ^ Sam Moore (25 January 2019). "Massive Attack have collaborated with Adam Curtis for their 'Mezzanine' tour". NME. Retrieved 21 February 2019.
  69. ^ "New six-film series from Adam Curtis". Retrieved 12 February 2021.
  70. ^ Blades, R. (22 January 2021). "New six-film series from Adam Curtis'". BBC. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  71. ^ "New Adam Curtis project lands on BBC iPlayer on Thursday 13 October".
  72. ^ "Inside the Telluride Film Festival Lineup: "There Will Be Fighting"". Vanity Fair. 1 September 2022. Retrieved 6 September 2022.
  73. ^ "New Adam Curtis project lands on BBC iPlayer on Thursday 13 October". BBC.
  74. ^ "2023 Television Specialist Factual | BAFTA Awards". BAFTA.
  75. ^ "BBC One, BBC Wales and iPlayer announce the Way, a new drama from Michael Sheen, James Graham and Adam Curtis".

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