Adam Curtis

In 1966 one of the most brilliant American New Wave movie directors - Joseph Strick - made a documentary for the BBC. It was about heckling in the British general election of that year. It is great piece of verite film-making.

Strick is still making films, and lives in Paris. He has now approached me because he wants to do a film about this year's general election - and wants to film heckling. My first reaction was to tell him that I don't think people heckle any longer. He says he is convinced they do heckle - and will heckle - because of anger over MPs etc. Political journalists I have asked don't know how widespread heckling is these days - because they don't tend to stray outside Westminster.

I think it raises a really interesting question. If people don't heckle any longer is it because they no longer believe in politics, or is it because they no longer believe in themselves?

Is it that they have come to see their politicians as creatures who no longer have any ideas or vision, and who have absolutely no idea or understanding of what is happening in the world, so there is no point in heckling them any longer?

Or is it that we, the people, have no ideas and no understanding of the world ourselves? That we have no vision any longer of what the world could be like, or what changes we would like made - so we have nothing to say? And thus nothing to heckle about.

So however angry we are we remain mute and sullen.

Or maybe we do still heckle? It would be very interesting to find out - please let me know.

Here are some extracts from the film.

In the film you can see both an old Britain and fragments of the new Britain that was emerging side by side in the audiences.

Empire Loyalists shout about the betrayal of Rhodesia and the loss of the last bits of the empire, while in the same audience - towards the end of the film - you can see early examples of British counter-culture. Long hair - but still beatnik, not hippie, fashion - with the slogan "Anarchy - don't vote, Anarchy don't vote".

It was the beginning of the rise of individualism and the modern retreat from politics.

Comments

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  • Comment number 53. Posted by Wunderbar

    on 30 Oct 2010 01:30

    Does the British parliament keep a count of how often MPs heckle?

    We Germans do - and every few years you can read the statistics in the news. This is a fairly accepted (and enjoyed) custom, but if you believe the papers, the quality has been declining since at least 1984, or even further back when old ex-communist Herbert Wehner and a buddy MP first threw their collegue, ex-Nazi Wolfgang Hedler through a glass door and then kicked him out of the parliament building altogether, back in 1950.

    "Normal" people who heckle nowadays aren't regarded with friendly eyes, and maybe they never were - they're labelled as troublemakers, and only talented orators like Joschka Fischer (Green Party, foreign minister during the Kosovo war) dare, or bother to take them on. And it goes something like this (in 2005):

    Man: shouts something about "Hartz IV", Germany's social benefit program for the long-term unemployed.

    Fischer: You'll get Hartz twelve from Monday on, if you don't watch out how you vote on Sunday.

    (merriment in the audience)

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  • Comment number 52. Posted by Juan

    on 4 May 2010 15:05

    Gordon Brown was heckled when he gave a pretty good speech to Citizen's UK on May the 3rd. The heckler appears around 7 and half minutes into the video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BA2Jz7xIXw

    That's the only example of heckling I've seen in this election; I don't think the "Duffy" fiasco counts. I've become a great admirer of Joseph Strick, but I'm unsure as to how he could possibly make a sequel to "The Hecklers" with such scarce material. The modern heckler is but a shadow of a bygone age; the one that appears in the video is some kind of nut, and doesn't really do justice to the great back and forth heckler that developed between politicians and the people as show in your blog.

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  • Comment number 51. Posted by Phiiip Pilkington

    on 16 Apr 2010 11:34

    What a fascinating little film. While I'm not sure if there's still heckling today - and how the recent economnic collapse will effect it - I think the way the media portrays it (or, more precisely, doesn't) and the way the population percieves it is tied into two interrelated factors.

    First of all, as you point out at the end of the post the rise of individualism has greatly effected political debate. I think that one thing that accounts for this rise is the increasing pressure to conform to the group in modern society. Because group-mentality has become increasingly powerful since the 60s many people have tried to counteract this by closing themselves in from the world and taking little interest in what is going on outside. A lot of emotion is needed to heckle and if those emotions are narcissistically driven inwards there'll be very little left to expend on just about anything occuring in the external world.

    This brings me to my next point. The rise of group-think makes representing any sort of conflict in the media more difficult - if this conflict happens at all. Today people are far more submissive to groups than they were at the time this film was shot. Many people have lost the confidence neccesary to stand up and speak at all - let alone actively criticise the speaker. Someone rightly pointed out above that during one of the scuffles people could be seen laughing. Today if a scuffle broke out people would be terrified - you'd see them glancing around looking for the approaching security guard, hoping he gets there soon to stop the violence.

    I think we have become a society far more submissive and reliant on clear order/orders (you could probably also tie in the rise of crime reporting in the media to this as well - didn't one sociologist also claim that this was the reason for the rise in detective literature in the emerging white-collar classes at the turn of the 20th century?).

    Anyway, great film - keep up the good work.

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  • Comment number 50. Posted by Jericho Morton Esq

    on 6 Apr 2010 00:27

    This is not a polite social change, it is totalitarian control. Now you are screened and scanned, patted down and shoe-less to protect our safety at political meetings. Despite that when an 80+ year old says 'rubbish' to Jack straw (a convenient Jew), the old man is dragged out like trash. Walter Wolfgang the old man is a survivor of the death camps, a man who really has fought for freedom, but the Straw man had him beaten. Can we be polite? Do we even have pitch forks now? Even the Newspeak is too much if you are not equal enough. The sham democracy you have swallowed doesn't even make you gag.

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  • Comment number 49. Posted by James Morrison

    on 3 Apr 2010 04:09

    I think there are relatively few objective opportunities for a heckler to heckle.
    Those persons who may have access enough to heckle a politician are most likley bound by the constraints of professional conduct not to indulge themselves.
    Those persons who by chance have access enough to heckle a politician most probably are not permitted to be near the politician, and likley to get arrested if they were to push it any further.
    The latter group would probably never get through the inner ring of the first group if a legitimate chance to heckle ever arose.

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  • Comment number 48. Posted by JohnDoddridge

    on 16 Mar 2010 23:18

    The act of political heckling is an act similar to the heckling at sports or comics; it is a secular release of tension that firmly binds the participant socially with the actor. In the religious realm, this desire was formally abdicated into liturgical worship. In the political arena, it acts as pressure valve for the always-present bubble of peripheral revolutionary impulses that are historically fueled by anger at real or perceived notions of inequality.

    Compared to the heckling of the sports team, lustily booed by the opposition, or the comic, whose quick wit deflects and incorporates heckling into the performance itself, heckling at political action is presently inculcated into the domestic (private) sphere.


    This is due to the fact that public heckling has been replaced by private heckling at technological devices instead of public action. These devices are the result of the dreams of those in the film who measure progress in terms of subjective technological sophistication rather than objective results.

    Today public political heckling is largely practiced within the safe confines of the private domestic setting or the small crowd at a bar, etc. The social realm has made a clear shift from public participation to the private realm over the last half century. Still, political heckling, overt or inward, serves an important function that marries the will of the elite with the subject.

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  • Comment number 47. Posted by DerekMc

    on 11 Mar 2010 20:21

    Hi Chris

    His name was Gerald Nabaroo.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerald_Nabarro

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  • Comment number 46. Posted by Chris

    on 10 Mar 2010 00:29

    Who are the main speakers shown? I think I know some of them, e.g. Ted Heath at 9 mins 30 secs, Harold Wilson at 8:10, ... Who, especially, is the one with the impressive moustache (11:40)?

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  • Comment number 45. Posted by John Douglas Amor

    on 3 Mar 2010 21:50

    People are no longer allowed to heckle: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7046890.ece

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  • Comment number 44. Posted by Juan

    on 2 Mar 2010 21:22

    @Porpie

    Glad you enjoyed the link. I just wish I had proof read my post before I hit "Post Comment".... :/

    In other news, the details for the upcoming series of televised debates between party leaders has been released:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/mar/02/details-leaders-election-debates

    Does anyone think we will see heckling at these events? Seems highly unlikely considering how strict the guidelines, but it would be nice nonetheless...

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