Tuesday 4 October 2011, 18:31

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Everywhere on television today people hug and burst into tears. It happens in drama a lot - but it has completely taken over factual programmes too. It usually comes at the end when the characters finally realise that they should express their true feelings. And they do this by crying and hugging everyone in sight.

It is part of something much wider in modern society - the belief that one should aim to be "authentic", and the way to do this, to become authentically yourself, is to learn to get in touch with your inner feelings and express them. If you button yourself up, have a stiff upper lip, and control your emotions then you are both inauthentic and somehow damaged as a human being.

Many factual TV programmes have become a central part of this belief system because they demonstrate in an intense and distilled form how to be a truly authentic person - how and when you should express your feelings. They are the modern guide to social etiquette.

I want to tell a brief history of the rise of the Hug on TV and also show some of the strange, odd heroic figures who held out against it.

But I also want to ask whether the TV hug has become oppressive and limiting.

That not only has it become a rigid convention - as rigid as anything in Victorian times - but because it teaches that we should concentrate on our own inner feelings, it also stops us from looking outside ourselves and thinking imaginatively about the society and the world around us.

I want to suggest that the Hug has become a part of the modern problem of not being able to imagine any alternative to the world of today. The Hug is no longer liberating, it is restraining.

I want to begin with a moment that shocked the British nation in 1958 when a famous film star, Anna Neagle, burst into tears on live television. It was in the middle of This is Your Life presented by Eamonn Andrews.

This was something that not only did not happen in public on TV, but more than that, should not be allowed to happen on TV. And the newspapers reacted in astonishment and fury. The Daily Mail led with:


"Anna Neagle broke down in floods of tears the night before last during the BBC programme entitled This is Your Life. Of all the television programmes this is the most revolting. It was a non-stop exercise in embarrassment wrapped up in unbearable sentiment.

It is about time this maudlin mush was broken up. Then they can all go and have a good cry - in private."

While the Daily Sketch screamed:


No! It's a shameful agony. Drop this show at once.


Here is what they were so shocked by. It begins with the introduction to the programme, followed by the two sections where Anna Neagle breaks down.

It happened because the programme showed a clip from a recent film Neagle had made with an actor called Jack Buchanan. He had been a great friend and had advised her in her career, but he had died the previous year. Neagle is overwhelmed by feeling, and it is very touching.

If you watch you can see that the camera that is doing the close ups is expecting to move down to Anna Neagle's face, but I think is being told by the director not to do this. You can almost feel the panic in the gallery. They cut to the wide shot and hold it for a long time. In an odd way it makes the moment more intense.

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Today it seems weird that people could be so shocked by Anna Neagle's public display of feeling.

But I want to show another, really strange, clip from a documentary in 1970 that makes you realise how easily we too can be shocked today by people who don't display and talk about their feelings in the correct "emotional" way. It makes one realise that we might be just as narrow in our judgements as the newspapers of 1958.

I found it in an episode of the Man Alive series. The film is called "The Other Half" and it is about modern poverty - it focusses on a number of people who are just scraping a living. One of the people filmed is a Ministry of Defence clerk called Francis Beveridge. The film follows him home, watches him playing the violin terribly, and then starts to interview him.

At first the interview is straightforward (even if he does have a rather odd hobby), but then it goes really odd and zooms off in a completely unexpected direction. It is compelling because Mr Beveridge is a man who admits openly and very dramatically that he is cosmically unhappy, but he refuses to do it in conventionally emotional or confessional terms.

It is gripping. It's like watching an alien. Today we would say that he was damaged or a depressive, but that would be to simplify him. Mr Beveridge knows what he says is "the truth" about himself - in other words he is "authentic". But he is not authentic in the right way.


And at the end his wife turns up. And it gets even odder.

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At the very same time as this film was being transmitted, another film crew from the same Man Alive series was in California filming the place that was going to teach the world to hug. And the film they made was the first TV programme to show British audiences how to express their feelings correctly.

They were filming the Esalen Institute - on the Californian coast south of San Francisco. Esalen is one of the main roots of the modern western sensibility. The ideas and the techniques that were taught there in the 1970s have fundamentally transformed both society and politics as much, or possibly even more, than any right-wing free market theories.

The Institute was founded by a young rich San Franciscan called Michael Murphy. He gathered together a group of radical psychoanalysts and psychotherapists and encouraged them to give classes in their techniques. What united them was the belief that modern society repressed individuals inner feelings. Because of this the individuals led narrow, dessicated lives and their true feelings were bent and warped.

Esalen taught people how to break out of this prison, how to let their inner feelings out and so become liberated beings. It was a wonderful dream - and thousands of people who had turned away from radical politics in the 1960s came to learn how to change society by changing themselves.

One of the earliest teachers was Bernie Gunther. He is incredibly important in the rise of the Hug. Bernie developed something he called "Sensory Awakening" which involved all kinds of mutual touching and massaging - including the hug. It even included the large group hug which he called the "Gunther Hero Sandwich".

Here is Bernie Gunther at work. It's one of the early moments in which the hug as an approved mode of emotional expression makes its way onto television.

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But the hug was also about the exercise of power.

The Man Alive film follows a therapy group over a week at Esalen. One of them is called Lillian. She is a wonderful person. She is spiky, cynical and funny - and above all original. She has come to Esalen because she broke up with her husband, had an affair with someone else - and now that has failed.

Lillian is really good in the film at describing how wonderful she finds it to open herself up and finally express her feelings. But she is also sharp enough to see that in the process she is being sucked into something that wants to transform her. She has a great phrase about going up to the hot baths at Esalen where everyone sat around naked - "I looked down into the snake-pit and all the snakes looked up and said 'Brother'!"

At the end of the week Lillian does what is the correct thing at Esalen. After having been hugged by the group she breaks down, cries, admits she is a bitch - while the group sit watching her approvingly. She even reaches out and hugs another member of the group who she had previously been rather cynical about.

It is a very tender moment. But Lillian, and I think the reporter, also realises that the group are making her into a particular norm in the name of liberation. She is now a feeling person - and feelings are quite blunt things, which means she is becoming rather like everyone else. What is disappearing are the particular and original characteristics that her quick thinking mind gave her.

But she is happier.

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In the early 1970s British television began to spread the idea that accessing and expressing your feelings was a good thing. Most documentaries still just observed people - or used them to make political or social points. But a number of factual programmes became channels for the new psychotheraputic ideas.

I have discovered a wonderful early example. It is film of a group in a youth club who have been called together by their Youth Worker. He is almost evangelical in his desire to get them to talk about heir feelings, and he has decided that the way to do this is to make them describe their feelings about one of the central members of the group - who is called Badger.

Here is Badger

And this is the group.

It is like a brilliant modern drama - filmed by one camera that moves around the group. It is also very funny because almost all the group are extremely reluctant to take on the new identity that the Youth Worker wants. I particularly like Derek over on the right who at one point mutters in an exasperated way - "What kind of club do you think it would be if everybody was themselves?"

Good question.

But there is one member of the group who enthusiastically embraces the new psychotheraputic ideas. It is the person they are all supposed to be talking about - Badger. He does it brilliantly and the rest are baffled. Derek mutters - "As far as I can see, Badger's different from what he was five minutes ago." But then we find out that Badger has spent more time than the others with the Youth Worker. He has been turned.

But as you watch Badger you are not sure whether he is describing his true feelings or not. There is a creeping sense of someone pretending to have the emotions that are expected of them. And in this way hiding their true feelings even further below the surface.

Or maybe the truth is even more disturbing - that there are lots of things that people live through and experience that they just don't have emotions about.

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But when it is truly authentic the Hug can be immensely powerful on television. It can break through the fakeness of most television and link us to personal experience in a way than no amount of clever editing or dialogue can.

I want to show a part of one of the best documentaries ever shown on British television. It is called Fourteen Days in May. It was made in 1987 by a brilliant director called Paul Hamann. The film tells the story of a convicted rapist and murderer called Edward Earl Johnson on death row in Mississippi - set during the countdown to his execution.

Johnson claims that he is innocent and that his confession was forced out of him. Hamann believes him and he constructs an incredibly powerful film that takes you through the experience, while also mounting a criticism of capital punishment with a clarity that few liberal films have matched.

This is from the last section of the film. At the end there are 17 minutes left before Johnson is killed. Hamann, the director, then does something new in television - he responds to his feelings in a truly authentic way. He behaves in the new, emotional way - but it is sincere.

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The original idea behind Esalen and the bringing of radical psychotherapy into everyday life was revolutionary. The Esalen teachers - like Bernie Gunther who made the Hug, along with tears, a symbol of the movement - believed that if the social constraints were removed and people just expressed their inner feelings then they would be transformed. And so would society.

But what they soon found was that most people had no idea how to do this. They wanted to be shown how to be emotionally expressive. People needed guidelines.

I have found a very odd moment on television in the mid 80s that shows this quite dramatically. It also shows just how complicated the idea of being "authentically yourself" can be.

The BBC decided to make a profile of the radical playwright Jean Genet. After lots of negotiation Genet agreed to a big interview - and came over to London. What then transpired must have been a bit stressful for the film makers, but it is fascinating.

Genet - the radical - is determined to prevent television turning him into the simplified character that an arts profile demands. He starts off monosyllabic, then when the interviewer tries to get him to talk emotionally about his childhood (the therapy perspective), Genet asserts that he has never been close to anyone and is perfectly happy like that.

All the way through Genet is trying to show how television is trying to create a fake version of authenticity. This culminates with him dramatically trying to break through the fakeness. He turns the tables and demands that the crew that is filming him step forward and be authentically themselves.

But one person stands in his way. Duncan, the sound recordist.

The sound recordist's reactions are a key moment in this whole history - because he is authentic, but in the wrong way. By trying to expose the setup of the interview, Genet has expectations of a true authenticity breaking through. But these are then confounded by Duncan's authenticity - which is really real.

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The truth about the sound recordist in the Genet film is that he is completely at sea when he is told to express himself - he doesn't know what to say.

But in the 1990s television began to teach people how to be emotional on camera. A self-selecting group of real people began to appear on TV and collaborate with the producers to create a new vocabulary of words and gestures that aimed to express their deep and authentic feelings.

It starts with Oprah's show, then spreads to Britain with things like Kilroy. At first it is verbal confessions and tears. But then the Hug begins to emerge.

I think the man that really brought the hug into British television in a big way was the producer Peter Bazalgette. His genius was to spot that the idea of transforming yourself as a person could be intimately linked to transforming the things around you - starting with the rooms in your house.

I think the first real hugs of these kind began in the series Changing Rooms in the mid 90s.

The original revolutionary idea had been that by changing yourself emotionally as a person you would then change society. Bazalgette created an easier and quicker variation. By simply changing the physical things around you - you could then change your inner feelings and became a better and more expressive human being.

Wallpaper as redemption.

Here are some of these early TV hugs, and the rooms associated with them, from 1996.

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And then the floodgates of hugs and tears opened. But one man stood heroically against the tide - and in a really interesting way.

He was the maverick Tory politician, Enoch Powell. In 1993 Powell agreed to appear on the series. Celebrity Mantlepiece. The set-up was simple, and a classical model of the emotional age. The celebrity showed the objects to the camera and then spoke about the deep memories and feelings they evoked.

Powell subverts this brilliantly. One the one hand he is cold and distant - completely stiff upper lip. His piece about the starfish he discovered on holiday and his father's reaction is just wonderfully timed.

But then, when he gets to the poems by AE Houseman, Powell goes to the other extreme. He becomes intensely emotional - and, because it is so authentically real and personal, it is strange. Somehow in one quiet moment he is more emotional than all the confessions going on around him in TV.

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But nothing was going to stop the rise of the hug. And to celebrate its triumph in television here is a short montage. I've tried to show how intense and wonderful it was as a moment in history - but also how strange, because lots of true and tender moments were mixed up with hundreds of people who one suspects were pretending to have the emotions that were expected of them. Just like Badger did back in 1971.

Maybe it was a lotus-eating moment, a dream allowed at a moment of incredible prosperity in the west. But as you watch everyone hug and cry on television you do get a sense of how much it was a society looking inward - and that was blind to the giant, dynamic forces of history outside. Or maybe they were hugging because they actively didn't want to see what was happening outside?

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There are straws in the wind of what may come next.

I am very intrigued by a man called Peter Thiel. He is a financier in Silicon Valley who has been behind many startups - above all he was one of the earliest and biggest investors in Facebook.

Thiel is a right-wing Silicon Valley libertarian. But he is also a radical thinker and has become a follower of the philosopher Rene Girard. Girard teaches at Stanford university and he has put forward a theory of what he calls "mimetic desire". This says that the impetus for the behaviour of most individuals in society does not primarily come in an isolated form from within - but through copying the behaviour of others.

At its heart mimetic desire is a fundamental challenge to the age of expressive individualism because it says is that your actions as an individual are copied from others, and that they don't originate simply from within you - they are shaped and given form by what you see other people are doing.

And peoples' desire to imitate each other is potentially a powerful force - especially when things like Facebook can intensify and amplify that desire.

This really interesting territory - it can create movements that can change the world for the better, but it can also be dangerous, because this was the motor for the great mass political and social movements of the first half of the twentieth century - nationalism, communism, fascism and totalitarianism. And they are frightening.

And it raises a question. Maybe the rise of modern individualism in the west after the second world war was not just about personal self-expression and freedom, but also a very good way of burying a frightening other truth about human beings. They are driven by the desire to imitate each other and are therefore vulnerable to political manipulation.

If we can be taught to hug we can just as easily learn to march and chant.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Thanks. Another fantastic piece. Poor Francis Beverage (was that his name?). I've no doubt that something snapped after that film was made and change came as it eventually always does. I hope he cheered up. I pity his seemingly unloved kid most though.

    There was an excellent documentary made in Ireland about people in search of emotional authenticity/certainty:

    Sadly, their search led here:

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    {{{{ ADAM }}}}

    (I kid. I loathe typographical hugs.)

    I wonder if /some/ of the indignation in the papers about the Anna Neagle incident was at the tactics of the show itself. That is, not so much about her shocking (!) display of emotion, but the assumption that people (the "weekly victim") can be ambushed like this for the sake of entertainment.

    And Mr Beveridge--MI5 would have been absolutely horrified to see anyone constrained under the Official Secrets Act to be so publicly laid out. Money problems, unhappiness, loneliness, desperation, a Finnish (!!) wife ... It wouldn't take a talent spotter very long to see that he should be paid a visit, poste-haste (немедленно). Perhaps with a lovely china gramophone as a gift.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    This is fascinating. I feel that recent outpourings of emotion are more for public display than genuine expressions both on TV and in the "real world". I was horrified at the way the public behaved after the death of Diana, I intensely dislike the current trend of setting up "memorial" facebook pages. It seems to be moving the focus from the deceased to oneself. I am saying all this as someone who was always regarded as being, if anything, over-emotional. Maybe my mistake has always been in displaying genuine rather than expected emotions.

    Ass regards the theory of mimetic desire, I agree, this could be a force used to change things so much for the worse. It has been the reasoning behind adverts for a long time, but its current incarnation is much more subtle and so much more dangerous

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    There are some fascinating clips there. I am seized with a burning desire to know what became of Francis Beveridge. Despite awaiting measurement for his coffin in 1969 he might well still be around now, aged about 86. I'd be astonished if his marriage had lasted, though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The interview with Beveridge is astonishing, what a find!

    Very timely subject for a post this week, what with Amanda Knox back in the press again. Seems clear that, regardless of other evidence, in the eyes of many her major crime was not performing the role of the grieving friend. Judging by her performance at the press conference upon returning home, it seems she has learnt her lesson.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    "If we can be taught to hug we can just as easily learn to march and chant."

    ...And the BBC broadcasts the tune:

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    'are you crying?' 'no.... I'm allright'
    thanks for this! a great read (and watch)!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The Anna Neagle footage is really moving and a little difficult to watch. Watching someone desperately trying not to break down is much more emotional than all the fake blubbing and emoting in the world. Writers and directors would do well to pay attention to this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Forgive me for doing this very anal comment, but in my defence I'm just being authentically myself in wanting to find out these details.

    This is Your Life: Anna Neagle TX 17.2.1958
    Man Alive: The Other Half TX 9.12.1970
    Man Alive dealing with Esalen: might be The Hippy Trail TX 11.11.1970
    Youth club TX not traced
    Fourteen Days in May TX 11.11.1987
    Arena: Saint Genet TX 12.11.1985
    Changing Rooms TX not traced
    Celebrity Mantelpiece: Enoch Powell TX 15.12.1993 (interesting review by Giles Smith in following day's Independent)

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Peter Thiel ideas link well with Mark Granovetter riot/threshold model and the mathematics of complex/chaotic systems

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Adam Curtis seems to be pre-occupied with the problem of being a modern Englishman. Should we have a stiff upper lip or not?

    I grew up in a family where we were emotionally repressed. Nobody told the truth and we all deferred to bullying aunts and grandparents just like in The Way of All Flesh.

    I went to a boy's boarding school which gave me lots of emotional highs, but nobody worried much about feelings. When I went to Oxford in the late 80s and saw fellow undergraduates hugging out of courtesy, it struck me as very affected.

    I can relate to Francis Beveridge, he's trying to articulate that he's unhappy. Some never acquire that degree of honesty. They never question their own actions and feelings.

    When the Tories were out of power, I would discuss with a friend about how some characters had 'touched the void' ie like Nebuchadnezzar they had eaten grass - that means they experienced some kind of humiliation (readjustment to reality) that had forced them to reevaluate their ideas and become sensitive individuals. Michael Portillo did, many Conservatives still have not.

    One film that communicated the pain of being an Englishman before the 1960s is The Go-Between. The novel and the film brilliantly evoke English emotional inauthenticity, unresolved problems and conflicts that can damage an individual for their whole life. That last scene where Marian taunts Leo for not getting over his trauma I found terrifying.

    For me Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled was a turning point. It encouraged me to be honest about feelings and identify 'lies'. It helped me get a handle on why I really disliked the Church of England and the Conservative Party - two things we traditional Englishmen like to find comfort in.

    What's the problem with English institutions? It's their cruelty. Whether it's families, or other social groups.

    Movements like Esalen, est, psychotherapy give individuals the tools to challenge authority. Though as Curtis has pointed out before, some of these 'alternative' movements become just as repressive.

    If you had an emotional problem, you can bet an Anglican vicar won't have a clue how to deal with it. Some people in those environments even dislike the handshake during the peace. If you go to a meeting of the Conservative Party and there is no social vitality whatsoever. It's still all deference and service.

    Curtis likes to study dance. I found a way of overcoming my 'old' Englishness by taking up salsa. I got to cuddle and hug women who I didn't know. It meant nothing, but it gave me confidence. I see a few Mr Beveridges go along, too, and it's a great way to sort out the emotional confusion they're going through (but not very English).

    I'm familiar with New Age thought. And I can talk about my feelings. One way of dealing with them is not to watch any populist TV - the stuff produced by Mr Bazalgette. I don't hug as a rule, but I can look inwards and articulate feelings.

    I like the discussion with the Youth Worker. My favourite psychotherapist is Irvin Yalom who says that we recreate our problems in group dynamics and we can acquire self-knowledge by becoming aware of how we cause those problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Esalen, or at least the Michael Murphy side of it, also did some outward-looking stuff, particularly in citizen diplomacy with the Soviet Union. And they pioneered that interplanetary hug, the spacebridge. Here's a video from the Soviet side of the first one in 1982:

    (try not to let the editing or music give you seizures)

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Wonderful piece. Poor Francis Beveridge - now there's a man who really needs a hug.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "The truth about the sound recordist in the Genet film is that he is completely at sea when he is told to express himself - he doesn't know what to say."

    This is completely wrong Adam. And it's criminal because what he actually says is gold.

    So much to say about this subject, be continued....

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Save some hugs for Francis, his daughter & (inevitable?) grand kids. I wonder what happened to the saddest family I have ever seen?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    There is an insincere, Maudlin quality to most of this "expression" of feelings. I can assume it's worse here in America, with its' obsession with celebrity. Reality TV. has given us scripted conflict as a sort of reaction to it (although they have their Hugs as well).

    We live in a therapeutic society that encourages you to "open up" and express yourself; your past traumas, what hurts you, what angers you, What scares you.
    I think in this kind of climate The people who can exploit the feelings of others for their own personal gain come into their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I daresay Mr. Beveridge was the earliest signal of the coming of Jeremy Kyle. People on the telly telling the world how miserable and helpless they are.

    It's interesting, in relation to the Americanisation of the British hug, that back around 1955, as commercial TV beckoned and the BBC stranglehold loosened, there are articles in the TV press of the day lamenting how the Americans allow open emotionalism on their television broadcasts and this will trickle into British homes unless we are all vigilant. I get the impression though that nobody was pretending that British people did not have emotions, but rather that public display of them was unseemly because they should be something that took place in private.

    It struck me that this BBC/middle-class concern is pinpointed in Orwell's 1984, where the Proles are visualised as louche and free (in their ignorance) but Winston Smith and his girl-friend are all repression and striving to emote in private without Big Brother seeing them. That last seems rather ironic in view of reality TV nowadays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I think The historian/social critic Christopher Lasch had a term for it:


    You see it more with shows like "I Survived"; where people talk about crimes and accidents they were victims of and survived. The elevation of the "victim" is definitely a part of it (imo).

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    That's another thought provoking and insightful piece Adam. I like the (almost) diagnostic approach to social phenomena that you present. But it seems like half of the story. You identify so many inconsistencies, ironies and sinister underlays, but would you reject consideration of their remedies or solutions? I suspect that could become quite political, or guilty of the back and forth ideas-narrative of the people/movements you portray. It's an unsettled circumstance to be in where you know all the problems and why they exist, but short of repeatedly doing the opposite, have no idea how to respond to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Adam, you are bang ON point here with the Thiel reference. I urge you to keep digging. He embodies a very wide range of themes you are already interested in. I eagerly await more on this from you.

    Meantime, the reality-tv/drama genre deserves a mention. The mildly improvised real life, 'penetrating insight' is a textbook definition Giraud's series of memes to imitate:
    The only way is Essex
    The only way is chelsea

    Also, the orchestrated emotional circus that is powers x factor is incredible.


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