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Adam Curtis | 16:53 UK time, Thursday, 23 December 2010

Here are two films for the holiday.

One is a film made by a young David Dimbleby about a group of 500 British ballroom dancers on an ocean cruise in the summer of 1973.

The second film tells the history of how pandas got involved with power politics in the 20th Century  - and the strange consequences for politicians in the West.

There is no connection between the two films.

Dimbleby's film is wonderful. It is beautifully shot - the images of the dancers rehearsing on deck under the grey skies of the Atlantic are great.

But underneath Dimbleby also cleverly uses the film to analyse the relationship between eroticism, friendship between men and women, and sex.

It is also very funny and affectionate.

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I have always thought that pandas, in evolutionary terms, are the most sophisticated animals in the world.

They cannot look after themselves, they are useless at reproducing. But to compensate they have managed to persuade the most advanced creatures on the planet - human beings - to care for their every need.

Here is a film made in 1976 called Very Important Pandas. It is the history of our relationship to pandas which not only explains how they came to have such a grip on our imaginations, but it also shows what happens when pandas get involved in power politics.

As the presenter points out - any world leader who was given a pair of pandas in the 1970s fell from power pretty soon afterwards.

Richard Nixon and Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing


Edward Heath and Chia Chia and Ching Ching


And Prime Minister Tanaka of Japan who was found guilty of accepting bribes from the US Lockheed Corporation - pictured below with his pandas, Lan Lan and Kang Kang


And, as if to prove the film's point, the same year it was transmitted, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who had helped make the pandas famous, was also found guilty of accepting bribes from Lockheed.

Prince Bernhard had been one of the co-founders of the World Wildlife fund in 1961. The fund had decided to make the panda its international logo. It was an act that made pandas the top "charismatic mega fauna" of the world.

Prince Bernhard tried to claim he had taken the money for the pandas. But noone believed him - and he was stripped of his title, his uniform, and forced to resign.


The second part of Very Important Pandas is a film made by the People's Republic of China in 1975 about the pandas and their environment in south-east China.

It is beautiful and strange. It has a great mood and pacing - and sometimes looks like the work of Jeff Koons. And there is a lovely section about the birth of a baby panda.

The Chinese film also tries to put the odd evolution of the useless panda into a revolutionary socialist perspective. The narrator quotes Friedrich Engels:

"F. Engels points out that each advance in organic evolution is at the same time a regression"

David Attenborough couldn't have put it better.

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  • Comment number 1.

    dear mr curtis

  • Comment number 2.

    Dear Mr Curtis

    Another great enlightening post. Keep them coming, I marvel at your ability to inform and engage your multiple fans with your narrative that weave between text, image and sound. You are one of the few (dare I say it) journalists who actually unearths new information and presents it in a honest and informative manner.

    Hopefully 2011 will bring us more great postings and exposes of what the majority of the mainstream media fail to cover. Maybe a new documentary? Thoughts on the next Mad Men series? Something resembling an expose on Rupert Murdoch's efforts to continually assail media laws and regulations in the UK - his distortion of the mass media and his renewed efforts to have even a larger slice of the media market. There must be some interesting archive footage of the old badger that would make for interesting viewing.

    Please, please keep this blog updated - and maybe could you post your documentary "An Ocean Apart"? Its impossible to find online at the moment? Happy Christmas...

  • Comment number 3.

    Not related to this particular post, but I'd be interested to hear your take on this: https://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=the-line-between-science-and-journa-2010-12-20

  • Comment number 4.

    According to a documentary I heard on the BBC's own Radio 4 recently, the panda as a species is roughly 20 million years old. Modern humans have been recognised as appearing between 200 000 and 50 000 years ago, depending on how you measure humanity. So who was looking after the panda before we came along? Perhaps it's not quite so useless as Mr Curtis suggests. On the matter of reproduction, the same documentary said that in the wild the female becomes pregnant pretty much every time she mates, so only being fertile once a year for a brief period of time makes good evolutionary sense. It seems that it's only when you lock them up in small concrete cages that they don't breed very well, but I expect the same could be said of humans.

  • Comment number 5.

    Arguably the best titled post yet, nice one Adam. The film about the dancing cruise is really charming.

    @Patrick Crenshaw - that's very interesting, thank you for posting. I'd also be interested to see what Adam and others think of this.

  • Comment number 6.

    If journalists begin doing experiments in a lab, then perhaps it could begin to be compared to science, otherwise I can't take the article seriously.

  • Comment number 7.

    If the Cold War hadn't ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union - something tells me that the panda would have played a significant part in bringing peace...

  • Comment number 8.

    Oh, and a point or two about that Scientific American interview - which is interesting on a number of levels.

    First of all, did anyone else note the explicit Marxist influence in the writing style. Consider:

    "I use the word "revolution" because it is so almost by definition - when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution."


    "With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers..."

    I just thought that this was interesting considering the source... no?

    As for the substance of the article itself - it wasn't bad, but a little dreamy and I don't think it fundamentally reflects what the purpose of journalism actually is. That purpose is to keep some modicum of transparency in our institutions. In many senses 'science journalism' - in which, economics journalism should definitely be counted - adds to opacity, by distracting the attention from the institutional and focusing it on the technical.

    Of course, the ideal is that both could exist. But I fear that the author might have a point insofar as that 'normal' journalism will become increasingly contextualised. That means - at the practical level - a lot more pensive reflection and a lot less shoe rubber. My conception of this is that, as the institutions become more opaque - say, the financial institutions - the 'scientific' and 'contextualised' media - say The Economist - will become more prevalent... and the world will become a strange and hidden place.

    As the author says:

    "As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating..."

    Yes, we certainly are - I just disagree with what future we're going back to. I've even begun to notice stylistic quirks online that are reminiscent of the irrational and analogical writings of the 14th century 'scholar'. Hmmm...

  • Comment number 9.

    RE Pandas of Doom - Looks like Nick Clegg wasn't aware of the panda curse. He's only gone and signed a deal to bring a pair of pandas to Britain for the first time in 17 years- bye Nick!


  • Comment number 10.

    Adam, did you have wind of the new Panda story?

  • Comment number 11.

    Unbelievably timely! (thanks for such a great year of stories mr c)

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'm going to be a git and point out that "megafauna" is all one word. I know because I never heard of it before and just went to check it out.

  • Comment number 14.

    In 1975 Pontypool was exporting stuffed toys to China?

    Blimey.... what was that about survival and extinction?


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