‘History,’ wrote Edward Gibbon, ‘is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.’ In this respect, though, history has nothing on the work of Adam Curtis, whose latest documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head has now arrived on BBC iPlayer — all six episodes and eight and a half hours of it.
Anybody who’s seen Curtis’s previous series (including The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap) will know what to expect. Once again, he mixes terrific news footage, short clips of more or less anything, mood-inducing songs and a lordly commentary to remind us just how hopeless — in both senses — human beings are. (Admittedly, only four episodes were available in advance, but I’m guessing the series won’t end on a note of good cheer.)
There’s also a less welcome feature of his more recent work: he ranges so widely that you might well struggle not just to follow the central argument, but to locate it. In the first part of the first episode alone, Curtis brought us the rise of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, the divorce of Robin Douglas-Home from the 1960s model (and future Mrs Michael Howard) Sandra Paul, the British black-power leader Michael X and the influence of the Irish novelist Ethel Boole on the Russian Revolution.
Curtis began, as he tends to do, with some brook-no-argument generalisations about ‘all of us’ (a favourite formulation of his) having been filled with anxiety and fear for decades at how terrible everything is — together with a paralysing inability to imagine it ever being any different. To explain why, he then rounded up the usual suspects, with the rise of individualism, politicians handing over power to global corporations, consumerism as a dream-like refuge from reality and the CIA’s brainwashing experiments all present and correct.
The rather windy historical framework is familiar too.