The Power of Nightmares

Thursday, January 20, 2005 by

For all the recurring bursts of sniping about the amount of old stuff on TV, it’s still rare to find a channel repeating an entire series a mere couple of months since it was first broadcast. It’s even rarer for the channel to advertise such a fact, with considerably far more publicity than the series received first time round, and to get away with it.

Roly Keating, controller of BBC2, has just performed such a trick with The Power of Nightmares. First aired in late October last year, the series was repeated this week over three successive nights, a decision which by all accounts has been met with precious little negative response. Quite the reverse. If anything the bulk of the complaints have been solely to do with the transmission time: the post-Newsnight “culture” slot of 11.20pm, usually reserved for documentaries from BBC4 or other awkwardly self-conscious highbrow offerings, and a marked switch from its original slot of 9pm.

Yet even this hasn’t seemed to dent the amount of reaction evident in newspapers, magazines and online in Britain and around the world. Again, if anything there’s been more comment this time, from just as many viewers as professional TV and media critics, than back in October. When a programme like this comes along, which provokes such a huge and immediate response on its debut and an even bigger one on its return, it’s human instinct to be suspicious. Who’s fooling who? How can something of such lofty, cerebral stock be so popular? Surely this sort of thing is just preaching to the converted? You even feel somehow in the wrong, or inadequate, for not wanting to tune in, never mind admitting to finding the entire business uninteresting or just plain irrelevant. As for the fact the series is about politics, ideology and global terrorism, well, that just seals it. More hot air. Several hours of life that you can never get back.

This is the point from where The Power of Nightmares began, and from where it’s gone on to carve out a small but profound spot in recent television history. Perhaps any programme that set out to overturn the sole prevailing theme of modern times, that the world is at risk from an international network of terrorists, and to do it right in the middle of primetime evening viewing, was always going to win itself a gold star in broadcasting annals. But a programme that tried to accomplish its intention by enthusiastically junking all the signature elements of the conventional documentary, instead resembling more of an archaic information film from the 1960s, yet which still generated enough of a furore to get trotted back out in the schedules so soon – well, that’s something else.

Underlying it all was a simple invitation: to start questioning the assumptions and predictions that have entered everyday life about the planet being forever on the edge of some kind of apocalypse. A straightforward enough request, albeit a challenging one given how much of the TV of the last couple of years, whether drama, documentary or fantasy, has taken such a situation for granted (Crisis Command, Spy, Dirty War, Spooks, The Hamburg Cell, England Expects). It’s become pretty much part of the fabric of existence, really, in almost the same way the Cold War became just a part of life during the 1950s right through to the late ’80s, and where the important thing to know is always how to deal with inevitable catastrophe rather than what to do to prevent it. But as The Power of Nightmares implied, because it’s the fabric of the way we live, it can easily be undone – and once you start tugging at it, it can unravel completely.

Having the nerve to let the programme run with such a premise, and to give its central argument a chance to convince, was the difficult part. Again, your instinct was to be suspicious. What’s the person behind this programme after? For that matter, who was this person anyway? There was a narrator, but he remained anonymous from start to finish. There was no presenter. There were contributions from a few interviewees, but that was it. You were left to assume that the producer and director, Adam Curtis, was the one who also supplied the voiceover, but even this was never confirmed.

Curiously, though, this actually came to help lend The Power of Nightmares an air of authority. No faces or names got in between the viewer and what the programme tried to say. Words and images were left to speak for themselves, in another throwback to old school show-and-tell style documentaries. Bold pronouncements – “instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares”; “those with the darkest nightmares became the most powerful” – ultimately started to sound reassuring, even comforting, because of their sober and everyday delivery. Thought-provoking and unconventional analysis about often the most melodramatic and startling of ideas ended up sounding soothing and calming. It was almost as if Curtis was leading viewers through a course of softly-spoken restorative treatment, of wanting to cleanse his audience of all its mistaken and misleading thoughts about the state of the world.

Strong stuff, certainly provocative, but closely argued and clearly explained. It was also undeniably watchable. The move away from talking heads and personalities was balanced by an exceedingly generous, constantly playful use of sound effects and visual clips. All the way through, stock footage, archive film snippets, random noises and abstract graphics punctuated the story to conjure up a mood or feeling, emphasise an emotion, or point up some piece of irony. It was a very stylised, sometimes arch, technique, especially the habit of matching a very po-faced piece of reportage with music of a completely contrary kind. One wry tune featuring an endlessly recurring bawdy “boing” effect was laid under pictures of various military personnel strutting about. An obvious gimmick, maybe, but as one of many dozen inspired, unexpected marriages of noise and image it played its part in further disarming your feelings about the series. It also helped make the whole thing that much more enjoyable.

For a three-part re-telling of post-war history from the point of view of Western politicians and Eastern terrorists, that was some doing. It was the work of a hugely skilled filmmaker, no question: anybody who can marshal sound and vision in such an order to so thoroughly and cogently outline an argument is undoubtedly talented at their craft. And if you made it to the end of the series, it’s a safe bet you only walked away more, not less, informed. Regardless of whether you were convinced by Curtis’s defiantly non-histrionic tutoring, that can only be a good thing.

The last of the three programmes had been updated since its original transmission to incorporate the recent ruling from the House of Lords on the nature of the terrorist threat to the UK. It’s unlikely Curtis would have done this had the Lords not happened to agree with his own conclusions, but then this was unashamedly polemical TV, and a strong argument is only ever as strong as the evidence deployed to back it up.

Asked recently whether he was trying to change anything with these programmes, Curtis replied that he was. Charged with making biased television, he responded: “Just because one is challenging the received wisdom on the basis of historical facts and journalistic investigation does not make one biased.” Going off the response it’s prompted in this country alone, the mind boggles at what might happen if and when The Power of Nightmares is shown in the United States. It’s a series for and about out times, brilliantly refreshing in its scope, style, ambition and bravery. It deserves to be repeated – again – before too long.


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