Wednesday 10 February 2010, 16:24

Adam Curtis 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.

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    Comment number 1.

    It's an interesting question. I think it's a combination of a whole boat load of factors though, not just the general apathy about politics that exists in the current social climate.

    One of your comments intrigues me: " Political journalists I have asked don't know how widespread heckling is these days - because they don't tend to stray outside Westminster." Maybe that's one of the reasons you don't see much heckling these days; because it isn't being reported. The media elite seems to have become ever more insular, and that has led to a death in local journalism. Now you have these big, amorphous entities such as "The Times" and "The Guardian" presiding over the whole country, with no local ties to any single community (the Guardian recently severed its historic links to local newspapers). If a group of people heckle a politician somewhere outside London, somewhere exotic like Cheltenham, and there's no journalist there to cover the event, do they still make a sound? In trying to cover everything the big media corporations end up covering next to nothing. Now it's all about user driven content.

    There's also the fact that big political events to be staged these days. Visits to hospitals or prepared speeches tend to be organized in such a way as to leave very little room for dissenters. So another reason why you don't see many hecklers these days is that politicians have got smart to it and so manipulate the media in such a way in order to present and orderly face to the world. A product of the modern, PR driven politicis, I suppose.

    Finally, there's also the fact that the people who do heckle tend to belong to small, ideologically driven groups: communists, anarchists, religious groups with a political agenda, etc. Any kind of angry response to political bullshit tends to be highly fractured, with small groups vying for attention and publicity. The internet has probably had the biggest effect of all: if people want to whine about politicians, they do it in forums and community blogs. I've seen quite feracious response to political events online, so I don't know if you could class that as heckling? I guess it's easier to vent your anger through a computer in the company of a like minded individuals rather than go through all the bother of going outside and find a unwilling politican to heckle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    We saw some much more muted but strongly worded attacks during the expenses scandal. David Cameron's adviser, Andrew Mackay, answers his constituents over his crooked claims:

    Cameron even sent all of his shadow cabinet out to their constituencies to justify their finances - and he's been doing CameronDirect, wherein he travels town halls answering (I think) unplanned questions.

    This election is going to get very interesting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Or we could just be polite and reserved?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    This was fascinating. I wonder though if the reason for the decline of heckling isn't so much political as cultural. Not all of the hecklers in the film were political, they were enjoying the art of tripping a speaker up or launching a well timed joke. The level of disorder people tolerated was particularly telling. If you look at the reactions of people, even in the scene when the fight breaks out, many are laughing. Now people are much more scared of public confrontation.

    Heckling was part of a much more communal street culture. It was a rougher style but, in a way, safer. The only people left who still heckle are builders, football crowds & comedy club audiences. All are considered to be too coarse for modern tastes, if not actually racist or sexist. Public confrontations now are directly physical, like the attacks on John Prescott or Peter Mandelson.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I wonder if a lack of heckling is because we're all more scared of what the consequences might be.

    Consider Walter Wolfgang in the 2005 Labour Party conference. He was bustled out of the hall even though he was 82 years old. It's just not tolerated. Interestingly that is precisely what Strick says would have happened in the US at the time he made this film.

    But I think anywhere cameras show up, the audience has been "padded" in advance to ensure that the "right" people are at the front. I've no doubt that in smaller meetings up and down the country, the heckling continues.


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