Thursday 20 December 2012, 15:19

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis




Animals have been a central part of television from the very beginning. But over that time the way animals are portrayed on TV has varied enormously - not just in the way they are filmed, but in the stories they are used to tell the viewers.

And the truth is that the animal programmes are far more about us than they are about the animals. They are really about how we see ourselves. I have always been convinced that animal programmes are one of the most powerful ideological expressions of our time - telling stories that both express and reinforce how we understand our relationship to each other socially and politically in powerfully emotional ways.

Over the past thirty years the wildlife programme has been dominant, led by David Attenborough. The story these programmes tell is a deeply conservative one. The central, natural, unit that the films portray is the family - and they tend to follow that social unit through repeated cycles of birth, discovery, danger and tragedy - followed by the birth of the next generation who will repeat the cycle.

The backdrop to this story is the endless repetition of the seasons - "spring returns and the first green shoots force their way through the melting snows" - which gives the cycle a natural inevitability that reflects and echoes back to us the static conservatism of our age.

But it wasn't always like this - and for Christmas I want to tell the story of the far more larky and chaotic age of animal programmes that came before in the 1970s and early 1980s.

It is The Age of the Talented Pet. It was a way of portraying animals on TV that was not only very funny - but was also equally a powerful ideological expression of the politics and aspirations of the time. I don't think this has been properly recognised and I would like to set the record straight.



To put the age of the talented pet programme fully in context it is necessary to start with the way television portrayed animals - and pets in particular - before that, in the 1960s.

I have found in the archives an absolutely wonderful film made in 1969 about the relationship between pets and their owners. It is called Love of a Kind, and it is a series of scenes and stories about different owners and their pets. Some are very funny, others are odd and eccentric, and some are incredibly moving.

It is a really good film that is also brilliantly shot in that loose 1960s verite way where you get the feeling that the camera is just looking around as a normal person would. It also perfectly expresses the belief that underlay the counterculture notions of the 1960s - because at heart it is about eccentricity and tolerance of oddness and difference.

Everyone in it - whether animal or owner - is a distinct character who is being just what they want to be. I particularly love Flo the enormously fat and very grumpy cat who begins the film, and Benji the vicious Cairn terrier who just goes for everyone - including his owner and her close friend. Their dialogue as they discuss why Benji does this is great.



The film is about how individuals and animals can forge deep emotional relationships - yet still fully be themselves in all their awkward and grumpy ways. It shows these deep bonds in some incredibly moving ways. The scene where an old woman waits while her dachshund is operated on by the vet is just heartbreaking and so moving.

But then, at the end, the credits reveal that the film was shot and directed by Lord Snowdon - and you can't but help get the feeling that what the film is really expressing is a traditional One-Nation Tory fantasy about the world - where everyone can be funny eccentrics and be happy, providing that they all know their place on the estate. Perhaps that was always the idea that underlay the hippie dream.

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The problem was that by the end of the 1960s more and more ordinary people didn't want to be patronised by the upper middle class elites in Britain and kept in their place. They didn't want to be told what was the right way to think and behave - because that somehow implied that the elites knew what was right, and so were cleverer than everyone else.

This rebellious feeling rose up among many ordinary people in the 1970s and would later be co-opted by the right under the term "aspirational". At its heart was a conviction among those people that they were just as clever as the patronising elites.

And as this feeling rose up so did a new type of animal programme on British television. Talented pets were animals who wanted to be as clever as their owners and took great delight in showing that they could do many of the things that humans could - like talk or sing or dance or even skateboard.

Here is one classic example. It is Meg the Counting Dog and her owner Mrs Martin. And Meg can not only count, she can do a lot more mathematically. Aspirational Dog.

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From one perspective these short films - which were predominantly made by the programmes Nationwide and That's Life - can be seen as deeply patronising to the owners of the animals. But they didn't patronise the animals - what comes over in most of them is the sheer joy and liberation that the animals clearly feel as they behave in sometimes the silliest ways - just like humans.

Here is the one that I think is both the oddest and the funniest of all these short films. I don't want to give anything away except to say that I call it The Soda Dogs - and it makes me cry with laughter, above all because of the sheer eagerness and excitement on the dogs' faces.

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And the animals got cleverer and cleverer. Here is one of the great talking dogs. He is called Domino. He only has one phrase but the film brilliantly repeats it in inventive ways. And the phrase is also a perfect expression of the world of 1980s and 90s consumer aspiration that about to come.

And notice how the power structure was shifting. Along with the talking dog is the non-talking husband, sitting next to his wife on the sofa. His only job is to feed biscuits to the dog as it talks.

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But as well as being odd expressions of the new aspirations of the time, these films also express the sheer anarchic silliness of the late 1970s and early 80s.

I think that that silliness was one of the products of the economic collapse and political chaos of the post-war planned society - a free-wheeling individualism born out of a general realisation that the elites who were in charge didn't have a clue any longer about what was going on. And it was by no means inevitable that the right would grab hold of that individualism. If the left had had the imagination and courage - they too could have taken hold of it and steered Britain in a completely different direction.

And here is a collection of the best of these silly, talented, anarchic animals. The wonderful somersaulting dog, plus Shep the dog that that's going to play Salut D'Amour by Sir Edward Elgar on the piano the way he wants to - in a fabulous out-of-tune style, and the singing parrot who accompanies his policeman owner in Weymouth.

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But in amongst all this new-found self-confidence among the pets of Britain there were still the ghosts of the old rigid owner-pet power structure.

Here is a beautiful moment I discovered in the live Election Programme from October 1974. It is 6.30 in the morning and the programme goes live to Downing Street. It is deserted except for one old man who is waiting to welcome Harold Wilson back as Prime Minister. With him is his dog - waiting mutely as his owner is interviewed, not allowed to do anything. He knows his place - very Old Labour.

(To be honest I have also put this in because the interview is great and the man's explanation of why he is there is beautifully logical and deadpan. Again very Old Labour)

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And the talented pets got weirder and also began to exploit their special talents. Here is a short film about Balls the Bat - plus his owner Cherry Bramwell. The bat is beautiful - and I love the bit where it goes shopping - but he has begun to go commercial, having just had a starring role in a movie.

And you can also see how the old power structure between owner and pet is beginning to be reasserted by the owner. Cherry is a brilliant interviewee - because she has realised the basic law of all comic factual TV. That if an interviewee is serious about an absurd situation - they are funny. If they think it's funny - it's not funny at all.

Cherry is deadpan serious and thus funny. But in reality she is acting. The earlier innocence of the talented pets' owners is disappearing to be replaced by a controlled reality.

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I want to end with a legendary moment from the Age of Talented Pets. It is a moment that millions remember - but it also shows dramatically how the silliness and anarchic stupidity was now beginning to be managed and controlled.

It is Prince, the dog from Leeds that said "Sausages". It is very funny – but, as the owner Paul Allen admits, he is manipulating Prince's throat to make the words. He has an elaborate justification for this - but, like a flash of lightning on a dark night, it shows how the individualism of the talented animals was now being increasingly institutionalised and managed. The age of innocence was over - and you could see the reality of what Thatcherism was going to become.

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Then - in the 1980s - the talented pets receded in TV. They still exist, like Pudsey the dancing dog and Simba from Top Dog model, but their place at the top table of TV culture was taken by the epic, conservative moral stories of the wildlife programmes and series.

We have lived with that portrayal of animals for thirty years, mixed in with programmes like When Animals Attack - that was started by Fox TV in the 1990s, that also has an implicit conservative message - the eternal law of the jungle.

But maybe that age is coming to an end as the boosters for our conservative age sound ever more uncertain. And at the same time the animal programming on the BBC is weakening and being challenged by the kingdom of Youtube with its wonderful range of stupid animals doing very silly things.

If animals on TV are the innocent ideological expressions of our age - maybe it is possible to look to the sneezing panda and its allied operatives on Youtube as the harbingers of what is to come. The return of the revolutionary libertarianism that was glimpsed with the joyous, anarchic talented pets of the late 1970s, before that moment of silly freedom was co-opted by the forces of reaction and market conservatism.

And the first hero of this new breed is Loukanikos - the dog that turns up to all the riots in Athens. Naturally his name translates as Sausage.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I can't believe that I am the first to comment - is this because the world is due to end tomorrow? or is it today? (oh I'll check Saturday).

    I'm a bit of fan (by mistake) actually, so like many 'bit of fan' comments this will be bias.

    I first watched (random remote control selection) one of your programmes unknowingly, that being 'The Way Of All Flesh' which I greatly enjoyed.

    The series that made my ears prick up was; 'All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace' which I think is one of the best BBC programs of 2011 (at least).

    Anyway homage aside...

    The clip with the man and dog outside number 10 is priceless. It is the type of clip that seems unbelievable now that a working man is let to stand in a street in London and wait for Harold Wilson the newly elected prime minister. It is touching show of the breadth of democracy and altruistic reporting early on a rain soaked morning.

    My favourite is the fruit bat woman who given a time machine I would probably marry. The clip smacks of victorian menagerie and a love that dare not squeak its name.

    Great blog amongst blogs ( I like the Neu dance compilation) from someone who wished he could just stand in the background of the BBC archive suite as these clips are discovered.

    Why am I the first to comment, is this a set-up?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Hi Adam, Technical issue - only the first few lines of this blog shows on a RSS aggregator - Google Reader in my case. Can you get a message to your technical team to repair it? Thanks.

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    Comment number 3.

    The things we get animals up to these days is obscene. It sort of makes Rin Tin Tin look like a back to nature classic. I guess the Faustian bargain is, if we can't make you dance for the people, then they won't save your furry asses. If every animal must become a dancing bear, then let's dispense with all this speciation crap and just have bears and men. We can pour all our resources into dancing bear training camps.

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    Comment number 4.

    Thanks Adam. My favourite thing is that I can't quite work out whether or where you're having us on or not.

    General observations

    - When you've played the clips, the window where it played 'offers' for you to play it again, with a summary of what it's about , which made me laugh -

    "Adam Curtis: BBC archive clip of dogs and soda"
    "Adam Curtis: Sausage the Greek riot dog"

    - The guy in the Soda Dogs clip also makes it, he's great. Try talking to your cat in Japanese. They will look at you like you're saying the most profound thing ever (I'm not sure if it works if you are actually Japanese).

    - I love the gentle way they rip Rantzen

    - I used to watch That's Life as a kid. I remember how the tone of the programme would change, from great fun things like this, to serious issues or stories. I found it a bit scary then. I might be way off, but I think Curtis does something similar in his films.

    - Shep is a comedy genius. It reminds me of Les Dawson or the Andre Preview Sketch from M&W. And the Hello Mum dog is much better than the Sausages dog.

    Merry Christmas to everyone - O What A Joy!!! Next year, we take Capitalism.

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    Comment number 5.

    @ theartteacher: Merry Christmas to you too and Best Wishes for 2013 since it's clear we survived 21 December 2012.

    My gripe with a lot of these nature shows is that they are showcases for a neo-Darwinian point of view that prizes competition more than co-operation, legitimises violence and hierarchy, and suggests that humans and nature, and even species of animals and plants that have actually co-existed for hundreds of thousands of years, can't live together in the same area without some form of violent or physical conflict. In this worldview, the only legitimate and stable group that animals can live in is a family group and nothing bigger.

    Ever see a nature show about African animals that had elephants, hippos, antelopes or any other species co-existing with local human communities and each species, human and non-human, adapting in their own ways to living in harmony with the other, constantly fine-tuning the balance, the humans respecting the animals' right to certain territory and performing their rituals there and the animals doing the same for the humans?

    To see how our perceptions of evolution and Darwinian explanations of evolution are heavily tinted by culture and ideology, you could read what Geoff Olson has to say about these in his article about Prince Peter A Kropotkin, the 19th century Russian zoologist / geographer who argued that co-operation is as important as competition in evolution here:

    and also Dean Henderson's article on the use of the neo-Darwinist competition paradigm to explain animal behaviour in the wild, present nature as brutal and dangerous and needing to be subdued, and justify human domination over nature as well as humans themselves:

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The first video is hilarious and touching.

    I particularly liked the headstone at 21:50:

    "We will always remember you LUMPY"

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    Comment number 7.

    It's something I did not realise until recently. I used to watch David Attenborough's nature documentaries, while listening to music, with the narration off. Recently I watched some of the same documentaries, this time hearing the commentary, and I was really shocked. He's deeply ideological. I can't pick out any specific lines - if watched them again I could - the experience was nauseating. He projects a social narrative onto what is just funny looking creatures running around and eating things. I watch nature programs to escape ideology - it only really works with the sound turned down. With the sound turned down you will notice that there are no kings in the natural kingdom - turn it up, and Attenborough presents graceful aristocrats, beasts are "majestic", hierarchies and "natural" order - and little asides "like in our world", whatever that world is.

    These days I find it difficult to watch television or even films, as I'm more conscious of when I am receiving an uninvited dose of ideology. There is a reason people like Attenborough feel the need to constantly yammer on with their ideology: "upper middle-class men are great, and natural deserve to run, own and control everything". People like Attenborough owe their position in life, not to some 'survival of the fittest' process of natural selection, but through social and economic exclusion. The law of the jungle is really only for the excluded. The ideology, is not only the justification, but it is what holds the reality together. It needs constant surreptitious repeating - or new and different realities become possible. Attenborough's reality vanishes when you turn the sound down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "He projects a social narrative onto what is just funny looking creatures running around and eating things."

    And therein is the whole of human historical research; we too are just funny looking creatures running around eating things. To pretend otherwise, as the Victorians did so often and Americans still largely do, is to fundamentally misunderstand almost every important aspect of the human condition. There *are* hierarchies in the natural world, and "natural orders" of one kind or another (constantly but slowly changing in response to the pressure of natural selection) and we get our human orders from the fact that we are embedded in that setting and not apart from it. To dismiss all anthropomorphic descriptions of animal interaction is to dismiss the reality that all human interactions are, in fact, animal interactions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    the title of the blog is a bit inaccurate it should read THE POLITICAL USE AND ABUSE OF 'domesticated' ANIMALS ON TV - i think there needs to be more discussion on the meaning of domestication of animals - especially how we understand our relationship to them - and the implications of conceptualizing that relationship. What does it mean to domesticate an animal anyway? Or to have a pet?

    Thumbs up on Kropotkin ^^

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    @Bob Long, no, we are not just funny little creatures running around and eating things. If you've notice, we're filming those creatures and they are not filming us. Anthropomorphisms are just projections. Authoritarian types like to point at dogs and say "ah, look at the pecking order, just like in our world of men" - a comforting justification from the world of nature. But where is the pecking order with chickens, or fish, or household cats. Those who anthropomorphise, tend to see what they want to see.

    And there are similarities between the myths the Victorians believed and the myths of David Attenborough. The Victorians believed in a world created through divine will. That God himself had dictated the hierarchies, from the animal kingdom, through the human, and all the way to the Kingdom of God. The beast in the fields for food, the working classes to do the work, and the upper classes to sit majestically at the top of this hierarchy, genteelly admiring the work of the Lord. And on earth as it is in heaven.

    The idea that we were biologically closely related to animals was an old and uncontroversial idea. This was not the crisis Darwin presented. The complexity of biological life seemed to validate the divine hypothesis - and thus the order of society. Through Darwin and others (which was not fully accepted until the 1950s) if was demonstrated that the complexity could evolve without the need for a divine order, or even any order at all - it was the product of radical freedom; random mutations, chaos. This devastated the elites - their positions in the social and economic hierarchies were the product of pure chance.

    Before they could believe being born into a position in the hierarchy was the result of a wise and just ordination from God. Chaotic blind luck has no moral justifiction, especially for the inequities of the world. They fought against this (and they're still fighting) Lamarkian evolution was a favoured contender for long time. As this was more comforting to the elites. Herbert Spencer even distorted Darwin's work into "The Survival of the Fittest" (a term Attenborough likes to use).

    Since Darwin is now irrefutable, and the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be used to justify Attenborough's Kingdom of Man, with just the right anthropomorphic projection he can create an animal kingdom - to justify the social hierarchy from its' "natural" base, and not from the top as in the per-Darwin world.

    It's not just Attenborough. Many people have been trying to tell this story for years. That since we're closely related to apes, that our societies must be the same, with the same hierarchies and competitions for resources and mates. It suits a certain mindset. But it takes an absurd stretch of the imagination to have any truth in it. If our domesticated animals are so radically different from their wild counterparts, how could we have escaped such radical changes too. Does the natural world have anything to tell us about ourselves, apart from convenient stories we want it to tell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    JMRC5: Rejection of all ideology is an ideology. It just means you can't examine your own as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "where is the pecking order with chickens"?

    Hold on, you would appear to be having a laugh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The idea of nature programs as ideological is fascinating, although I tried to watch the clips, but found them, dare I say it, rather tedious; one thing though--why did the owner of the Soda Dogs talk to them in Japanese?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Splendid blog as usual. It is only proper that Prince's discoverer restore performing animal programmes to their rightful place in sociopolitical analysis.

    The clips are mightily entertaining. While I agree that nature programmes a la Attenborough show a whole natural world as a fixed status quo - which you elucidated well in Machines of Loving Grace - I unfortunately see the animal clips in both phases, challenging the status quo emerged in the 60s/70s, then conservative Thatcherite domination fromn the 80s, as performing similar functions to each other, although certain tendencies become more pronounced in the second phase. Both centre around the home as a world where the worker has control in the last instance over the pet as a substitute for control in the world and the workplace. As you say this fits a One Nation hierarchical view of society. However the stranglehold of the home got worse under Thatcher, particularly as the only way to succeed was shown to aspite to be middle class and narrowly materialistic, more soulless and more trivialised . Perhaps more warm humanism (& anilmalism as a reflection) does indeed show in the 60s/70s clips reflecting a greater stress on fighting for a better society which was beaten by the Tories.

    But Loukaides ('Sausage' - o happy coincidence!) the Greek protest dog shows a different aspect and new phase entirely from both. Now if you coud dig out footage of protestors' pets from the 60s/70s like you dug out clips of the left at the time...

    By the way have you noticed the similarity of BBC acting DG Tim Davie to Garth from The Office? Now if ever you were tempted to make a series on managerialism...

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Love the perspective of all your body of work, Adam, to say nothing of your perceptions and how you present them through the viewpoint of others.
    In this case, the domination meme is continually reinforced. Survival of the fittest. Alpha-males. We can manipulate it but we cannot change it etc.
    Is it really just a mirror to reality or is it somewhat more capitulating than that?
    Unless we draw ourselves away from our fascination with our plight, we cannot achieve the total vision required to find solutions to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Personally I think the political narrative constructed out of these found clips is thin... LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    "But then, at the end, the credits reveal that the film was shot and directed by Lord Snowdon - and you can't but help get the feeling that what the film is really expressing is a traditional One-Nation Tory fantasy about the world."

    Complete twaddle, IMHO. Who apart from an ideologue predisposed to see in everything whatever (and only whatever) his ideology predisposes him to see "can't help but get" that feeling? It's a film about people and what their pets mean to them. The construction you choose to put upon it is entirely in your own mind. You won't be surprised to learn that I put a different construction on it, having nothing whatever to do with politics. So, which of our respective perceptions is the "right" one?

    And what for heaven's sake has the clip about the man waiting for Wilson to cross No. 10's threshold got to do with your argument? That you offer the feeble pretext that he happens to have a dog with him that he doesn't introduce to us (deeply significant that, Watson) starkly reveals the lengths you'll go to to force ANY material, no matter how unsuitable, to fit into your propagandistic theme. It was also just boring.

    I'd had no experience of your work before following a link to your 2011 piece "The curse of Tina" ( which I thought was excellent). This one is terrible in comparison - just labouring hobby-horses. But nearly all the clips were great and I'm grateful to you for unearthing them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    @torpare.....You are wrong....about everything.

    Have you noticed, that on the various coats of arms, there is a lion, and not generally something more English, like a fox, or hedgehog. This is ideology that goes back much further than nature documentaries. The lion is the king of the jungle.

    In nature documentaries, lions are always presented as "majestic", in charge, in slow mo, as a certain kind of pompous wealthy man would like to see himself. You will not see them being kicked to death by waterbuffaloe, and eaten by hyena. The reality is lions are just scavengers. They pick off the weak and the old. And they come to a nasty end too. (They don't fade gracefully away). Nothing regal.

    There is a class of person today, who can't go on holiday without it being an "adventure" or an "achievement". Climbing Kilimanjaro, is an "achievement" - not simply another superficial tourist experience (which every tourist experience is - but as experiences go, that can be enough fun in itself. ). And a certain kind of class of young person can't simply go on a gap year - they have to "volunteer" in Africa (It's a complete fraud - the kids live in well appointed compounds, surrounded by armed guards....they do a little clappy handy with some children - may even dig a well, that the locals probably do not need - or a foot bridge.....more ideology)

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I have to agree with Adam about the clip with the dogs and the soda fountain. I laughed out loud several times and then felt a bit guilty about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Really funny Adam and was interested in how you related our treatment of animals to politics...not something i had ever given much thought to. Not really sure if there is a correlation. However i am still laughing about the bat having to pay a tortoise fee to travel on the public transport.


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