By Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
May 30, 2005 - 7:17 AM PDT
Any avid reader of Greencine's various online presences will be aware that we have been promoting the work of BBC film essayist Adam Curtis with gusto. Only last week, David D'Arcy questioned Curtis on the politics behind his most recent series, The Power of Nightmares, which just screened at Cannes.
Before beginning his stint at the BBC, Curtis taught politics at Oxford, moving over to television when he became overwhelmingly bored. Since his move he has produced many successful non-fiction series for several different departments there. Pandora's Box
looks at the intimate relationship between science and politics over the last fifty years. The Mayfair Set
follows four eccentric leaders of the free market who came to dominate British and world politics in the 60s and 70s and who also happened to frequent the same private casino in Mayfair. The Century of the Self
takes as its starting point the establishment of the first PR company by Sigmund Freud's nephew and follows the mutations of large scale psychological manipulation to the present day as manifest in the all-powerful political focus groups of the 90s. The Power of Nightmares
compares the parallel story lines and beliefs of the neoconservative and Islamist fundamentalist movements, culminating in their mutually beneficial use of fear to subjugate the masses.
One should not, however, reduce Curtis's work to single line synopses. One of his great skills is in selecting topics with a long history and using the episodic structure of television to slowly, captivatingly, tell the story of both a group of people and an idea. His essays have plots and characters. He has been given the uncomfortable (for him) moniker of "auteur" because he narrates his own films with sardonic wit and demonstrates his theories by making unusual and surprising choices when it comes to interviewees and stock footage.
Sadly, Curtis's documentaries have not yet been shown on American television. In fact, outside of San Francisco, practically the only way to have seen them in the US at all is through online bootlegs. That The Century of the Self
and The Power of Nightmares
have been screened in San Francisco is thanks almost entirely to Tom Luddy, a long time Bay Area film figure and cofounder of the Telluride Film Festival. This coming week, Green Screen
, the UN Environmental Day
Film Festival, programmed by Luddy, will be screening two relevant segments of Pandora's Box
: Goodbye Mrs. Ant
and The Brink of Eternity
. Curtis was recently in San Francisco to receive the San Francisco International Film Festival's Persistence of Vision Award
. He joined Tom Luddy, Jonathan Marlow
and myself for a discussion of the problems he's having getting his films shown here. Inevitably, we wandered into deeper territory.
Do you think that coming out of a country with a television service like the BBC, being used to informational programming in a long format, helped you in your current work?Adam Curtis:
Yes. I grew up in the late 80s watching all that current affairs and news stuff and thinking it was so boring. I mean, really boring
. Yet at the same time, I was convinced that power in my society, the power in our
societies, moves not just through politics, it goes through science, it goes through public relations, it goes through psychology, it goes through everything and that we should be telling stories about this
. And no one was. So, yes, I came out of that tradition. But I realized that you could tell stories which are basically political but are also about areas that are a part of people's lives, which they don't look at that way - rather than doing long, dull interviews with politicians. I mean, I hardly interview politicians because they're boring. And you know what they're going to say. They're not unpredictable.Eaves:
Do you come up with your thesis first, before you find the stories?Curtis:
No. I find the stories. I mean, you could argue that I started this one because I was interested in conservative theories about society, which is really what this is about, but you'd never know that. Ultimately, I found this story about this guy Sayyid Qutb
and I just thought it was a great story. If I like it, I assume that everyone else will be fascinated. Because I knew nothing about him. I mean, don't you find it astonishing that neither television here, nor in my country, has done a proper history of Islamism? The movement that actually led to the planes being flown into the buildings on September the 11th. I mean, I've done sort of a quirky essay that uses that, but no one's done a proper six-part series. It's just astonishing. I still don't understand. Surely your job as a television maker, even at boring old PBS, is to inform people.Jonathan Marlow:
You use an exceptional amount of "found footage" in your films. By Pandora's Box
, that style is pretty well established. How did you decide to approach your footage in this way? Early on, from a journalistic standpoint, were you always intending to discuss issues with your own narration and with images that occasionally work in conflict?Curtis:
Well, to be honest, out of desperation. Pandora's Box
is actually when I started doing it because I'd sold this idea of doing a whole series about politics and science and what the political ideas were behind the scientific ideas of the last thirty or forty years, and really, they're very difficult to illustrate. I mean, I was really desperate. There was one thing I made about the RAND Corporation and it was just a disaster until I suddenly realized you just throw anything in you like. It is out of desperation. And providing your writing is strong - the words are terribly important. Then the pictures, if you like them, other people like them. You put in jokes; there were people I had interviewed there that were really boring. I won't say who, but actually I discovered that if you put in images that weren't actually illustrating what they said, but made fun of them a bit, not in a nasty way, but played with them as you would if you were a novelist, you have a sort of counterpoint that points out their character. It sort of works. But it was out desperation late at night in the cutting room.Eaves:
Where do you draw your archive material from? The BBC archive?Curtis:
The great resource is the BBC archive. It goes back sixty years. There is a vast warehouse near Heathrow airport which is the grimmest place ever, but it's just got this amazing resource of images. For a lot of the news footage from the 1970s through to the early 90s, they've got all of the little clips that they ran into the studio. So you'll have a Beta tape which will last two or three weeks and I just sit there, playing it here and I've got a recording deck there and any image I like I just record and log and so when I then get desperate in the cutting room, I think, oh, yes, there was that shot of a mountain with a grey sky behind, that was rather beautiful, I could put that in there. It's out of desperation. And also because I don't like film crews. Film crews are really boring, they're dull; they believe that pictures are more important than words and they always want to go to restaurants and get fed. Actually, if they've done all the work for you and it looks better, then why not just steal it? It's cheaper. And then you can just do anything you want.Marlow:
You're quite adept at using music cues in very unusual ways.Curtis:
My great inspiration here is John Carpenter
. The audio actually has so many soundtracks thrown in, just little bits of things. I tape bits of noise and shave bits off them and turn them around. The other reason that I love this is, in the early 90s, nonlinear editing systems came in and as they've gotten better and better I just took to them like a duck to water. The stuff now is just wonderful. I mean you put pictures in and literally you pull it and you stretch it like that and it's just... Sorry, we're getting off the point.Marlow:
No, it is
the point. You're taking the notion of what a documentary is and you're...Curtis:
But you see, I don't think I make documentaries. I'm going to go on about this. I'm a journalist. I'm a modern journalist. I use pictures imaginatively to argue a piece of journalism essay-making. Documentaries are for people who make achingly plangent films with no commentary about graves in Bosnia. There's a wonderful place for those in television and in cinema but I do something else. I tell people about the world and I use my voice and I tell them what I think and I show pictures that I like. Also, the other thing I do is, I use the pictures to disguise the fact that I make great jumps. I often get asked, "Oh, why don't you write a book?" You can't, because actually, if you take all the pictures away, it would be rather sort of, not mundane, but... In a way, the pictures have a sense of disassociation. They stop people thinking, "Oh he's trying to Agit-Prop us." Instead, I'm having fun with this argument. I show quite clearly in the way I use pictures that this is an argument. I don't pretend that this is the voice of God, that this is an authorial thing. What I'm saying is, look, the world is very complicated and this is my argument, based on an assembly of facts which are not untrue, but this is my argument, and the way I use pictures shows that and it's almost like they know what they're going to get and they can argue with it. People love it. They know it's not true - no, I mustn't say that, but you're right, it gives a sort of distance to it, but also it's enjoyable.Eaves:
Don't you think though that if you did show The Power of Nightmares
here on television, people would hear your British accent and assume that it is the impartial BBC voice of authority and fact?Curtis:
I think that's quite a good question. I don't know how my voice would come over. In Britain, my voice doesn't come over as authorial. It's slightly playful. It's quite soft. It's emotional and I twist and turn. The traditional voice of the BBC is deeper and has more gravitas. I talk fast and the films are a bit like that. It's a bit like meeting someone at a party who's a bit obsessed about something. And you're quite interested, but at the same time, you think, hang on, do I want to get away from this or not? You know what you're getting. But I don't know whether it would be seen like that in this country. If, in fact, just being a British voice, like, they all sound alike, don't they? You know what I mean? Would just confuse the matter.Marlow:
Could you tell us a little bit about the difficulty you're having getting your films seen in the U.S., theatrically or on television?Curtis:
What I'm more interested in is getting them on television. I'm in television because it's a powerful medium. Filmmaking's all very well, but really, you go out to a captive audience of liberals who basically sit there and nod and say, "Hmm, yes, that's very nice." The point about television is that it still has a wide demographic and I would love it to be on American television.
I don't know how it would work here, but at the BBC, I argued that, although these films are critical, you wouldn't know quite what my politics were. And actually, I keep my politics perfectly out of this. This is a very interesting area and I think that TV in my country is beginning to adapt to this. I don't know whether your television is; I think it's much more timid. It's really a simple question. Why can't television stations have Op-Ed pages? It's as simple as that. Why not? It's not like it's a polemic - I'm writing
a critical piece. And you can't quite tell where it's coming from because it's factually based, but it is critical. What's wrong with that? There seems to be this thing in this country where they would want, within the same program, to have someone saying, "Well, Al Qaeda, as an organization, does exist." Which is stupid.
In this series, The Power of Nightmares
, I am critical of the neoconservatives, I'm critical of the Islamists, I'm critical of the ways politicians from different parties have chosen to use the fear that emerged out of these actions. You couldn't tell what I actually think. My personal politics have nothing to do with this. I'm just grumpy because I can't understand why, for example, my own organization has reported things like these sleeper cells in the way they have. I can't understand it, they're so sloppy. They get it wrong. I have just been sitting in a trial
about a so-called sleeper cell in my country and the jury quite rightly dismissed the charges against eight of the people and convicted one guy of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance because he was a nasty horrible Islamist who had downloaded some recipes from the Internet - from an American Supremacist site, interestingly - and tried to make the poisons.
The poisons were so pathetic that they couldn't even kill the mice they were tested on in the laboratory. The jury quite rightly said this is rubbish, got rid of the other cases and charged this man. He was a nasty horrible man - he'd also stabbed a policeman. Nasty. My own organization reported it as a perverse jury decision and said that the authorities had stopped a terror plot that, if it had happened would have had, quote, "consequences greater than 9/11." It was just rubbish. Absolute rubbish. I don't get it. That's what I'm grumpy about. There's no politics in this.
The trial was reported, then three days later, I was at the British Academy Awards. I got the award for the best factual series. I was sitting there listening to everyone go up, thank people, thanking this and thanking that, and I get so bored with that, so I finally get this award, I go up and make a speech criticizing the media for the reporting of the ricin trial saying that, as I show in my film, there is still this problem, let's hope that this award changes this because I can tell you that the ricin trial has been badly reported, including by my own organization. It was cut from the broadcast. By the BBC.
I mean, it's just weird. Actually, what I'm saying is, the thing that fuels these programs is not a sympathy for a particular side or another, it's just a general grumpiness about the way reality is being portrayed. And then on top of that, I'm trying to ask, well, why are they obsessed with portraying this fantasy? So there are two levels in my films. There is a factual story and then, on top of that, I try and say, hang on, why has this happened? And I say, well, it could be this. I don't necessarily believe that's true, I'm trying it out. And it's so weird, the way everything is being reported here and in my country; there must be some
reason behind it.Marlow:
It's trying to get a handle on a secret history of the world?Curtis:
It's trying to work out actually how reality does work. How fact and fiction mix together and how that's then used by powerful organizations and why.Marlow:
Tom, we were talking about your efforts to get Adam's work shown in the U.S. How did you first come across Adam's films? Was it through Telluride?Tom Luddy:
Indirectly. When I was programming here [in San Francisco] in the past and at Telluride, I never made any distinctions between work done for British television and work done for the cinema. At Telluride, we had Alan Clarke
for the first time and gave an award to Dennis Potter
and gave an Award to Anthony Wall
and we've had many others here. For me, they're all people who make things that look to me like films, even though Mr. Curtis may disagree. To me, they're moving images and sounds and I don't make any distinction.
A friend of mine told me about Century of the Self
, and I happened to be almost the next day with Stephen Frears
, and I mentioned it to him, and he said, "Oh, it's Adam Curtis. He's the best we have, you know. I'm in awe of him; it's not just that, there's The Mayfair Set
," and he babbled on, The Mayfair Set
has the best ending of any British film, it's a work of genius, the monopoly board sequence, and so, then I got hold of Century of the Self
and I didn't want to wait for Telluride, which was coming in September, and I got it in here [SFIFF 2003]. Part Three
is all about people in this part of the world and I said, you know, it has to show in San Francisco first.Marlow:
Do you ever feel that it's not actually the politics that American stations disagree with, but the fact that you actually tackle big ideas, and we're not well-known for dealing with big ideas?Curtis:
I think there is a fear of doing ideas on television. And to be honest, if you look at the mind of a television executive, it is quite well-founded. I know the archives at the BBC. Programs about ideas are so boring because what you tend to have is, you have a well-known personality. They do lots of shots of them striding around usually different parts of the world and then they do illustrative bits in between and they're really dull. What I do is find stories that I then use to illustrate the ideas. Because I
think people's stories are interesting. And I think that, if you could persuade television executives that people might be interested because of the stories, they might change their mind. They see there are ideas and they go, "No, you can't do that on TV." But we were astonished with The Power of Nightmares
. Audiences really are quite interested in this, because, with this subject, you're touching on their own fears. All we're saying in this series is, "Don't be so frightened. Get a grip. You do face a threat but it's not this terrifying unique force that you've been told it is." And people quite like that.Eaves:
But don't you then transfer the fear? You then become more fearful about the way you're being manipulated.Curtis:
No, you become more empowered because you have been informed of the actual reality behind the fantasy rhetoric that you are given. Actually, that gives you more strength. The problem of our time is that people are
increasingly atomized and individualized in our society. "Individuated" is the posh word. And that removes them from the support structures that officially have given them a sense of what the world is really about. The church, trade unions, all sorts of things like that - and television has a great role to play in doing that. What we're telling them is: "Don't be so frightened. It is a threat but it's not going to overwhelm our society." I think that's a good thing for television to do. Actually, the reaction to our series was that, yeah, we quite liked someone saying that. And we thought, they really did feel it, and I'm sure people here have a bit of a suspicion it isn't quite like we're being told it is.Luddy:
Everyone seems to be saying that the BBC is dumbing down. Do you see yourself as going against the grain?Curtis:
You could argue that what I'm doing is adapting to an audience that is becoming more assertive in wanting to be entertained, which is not a bad thing. Okay, I'm going to entertain you, but I'm also going to put ideas in. In a sense, I am part of that dumbing down process. A number of the intellectuals within the British elite don't like what I do. They think I cut too fast, more like a pop video. They put on that posh voice and say it's not a measured discussion of the issues. Is television dumbing down? Television is dumbing down basically for the same reasons I talk about in The Power of Nightmares
. Many of the people who make television programs have run out of ideas. They haven't got anything more to say. So what they do is they entertain the masses by making reality TV. It's as much their fault as it is the fault of the masses. They've run out of confidence. They haven't got the faintest idea of what to do. They don't know what's right or what's wrong any longer. It's partly what my programs are all about; it's the failure of the elite to really have confidence any longer. That's true in television as it is in politics and journalism.Eaves:
That comes through in The Mayfair Set
, particularly the loss of confidence of the politicians in England.Curtis:
So that allows through a bunch of rapacious scalawags who come in and loot companies and, out of that, the market then comes in. It really is about the failure of a generation. That's the thing we're living through, we have lived through, the failure of a liberal elite to realize their project. It didn't work.Marlow:
There is a starting point for all of these pieces, and obviously, you're in some starting point as you move into whatever will follow The Power of Nightmares
. Have you begun to flesh something out?Curtis:
To be honest, I haven't found a story. I've got lots of theoretical areas but I'm just waiting to find a story. I haven't found one yet. You know when you find it. When I started on The Power of Nightmares
, I was going to go and do a piece about Ayn Rand
, as Tom well knows. Her theories are the opposite of the neoconservatives and the Islamists. She believes in total individualism and freedom. And originally, I was going to do all three of them, but it was too complicated.Marlow:
And you use yourself as a benchmark?Curtis:
I think I'm quite normal. I think what I would like, other people would like. People like stories, it's just a given fact. However much some filmmakers try to get away from it, storytelling, even in it's most dislocated form, is what drives movies.Luddy:
You were going to have Ayn Rand going to the premiere of a movie at the same time, right?Curtis:
That's the other thing about it; Sayyid Qutb is in Colorado in 1949, Leo Strauss
is arriving in Chicago, and Ayn Rand is at the premiere of The Fountainhead
in Los Angeles! I was going to start, like a novel, with those three things. Then I started cutting the first film and it just was too complicated. You didn't know where you were.Marlow:
Could you talk a bit then about your use of 19th century literature as the foundation for a structure and a style of your form of journalism?Curtis:
Well, I've always been fascinated by 19th century novelists because they are very cinematic. They take a panorama of a society and they have characters moving through it and they tell the story of the characters, but they also tell you something about society at the same time. I am fascinated by the structure of television, because television is episodic. You can have ten episodes or twelve, or you can have 25 episodes; you can criss and cross and make things work in a structure which, in a one-off film, you can't necessarily do.
One of the things that I've done in this last series is, take two stories which most of the time have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and I cut between the two much as a novelist would. Someone like Balzac
would do that because the audience knows, trusts you, because they know that in the end they're heading together. There's a trajectory and then they cross and then they go the other way and people like that. And you can do that over a period of weeks, so I'm fascinated by that.
I just think television is a really original medium which people haven't yet fully exploited and discovered. I mean, we were talking earlier on about how so much really good drama, from our British point of view, is being done on American television now. It's really inventive. Some of the cutting and the structure. The structure of a series like The Wire
, even 24
- whatever you think about the ludicrousness of the plot, it uses many of the avant-garde techniques of the filmmakers of the 60s. What I'm fascinated by is not visuals, in a traditional cinematic sense, but structure and ideas. That you can actually take the structure of a story or a structure of different groups of people, like the Mayfair Set. I took four men who, well, they all knew each other, but they hung around one gambling club in Mayfair for thirty years. I just followed their story, more like a novel. That's what I mean. I suppose I'm more literary than cinematic in the way that most critics in Britain would describe cinema which they think of as purely visual. And it's a sad thing that's happened to cinema. It's lost that sense of the interplay between visual and cinematic things and the great literary tradition. If you go back to Jean Renoir
Also, the BBC is very good at some of the literary adaptations. Andrew Davies
's work, for example.Curtis:
Yes, and he does very audacious jumps in the structure which I really admire. Personally, I think that people like me are pushing television towards what great novels were like in the 19th century. It's the central thing in our life. You come home and you turn it on. And you get drawn in. Even some reality programs have elements of novels about them. Big Brother
didn't work here, but Big Brother
in my country, they edit each night to tell a little story of that day. I mean, sometimes it's completely crap, but actually, again, it's within the novelistic tradition. To go back to the questions that David [Thomson] was asking me in the Q&A, the BBC comes as much from a literary journalistic tradition as it does from a cinematic tradition, and when it mixes well, it's really good. And I think things like The Wire
on HBO also have that same sense.Luddy:
I wanted to ask you about Robert Reich
. Several times in Century of the Self
, including at the very end, he says as clearly and precisely as you could have wanted the thesis that sums up what we've just seen, as if you had written it for him. Did it just come out of his mouth like that?Curtis:
I had never met him before. I came to see him in his house in Cambridge one rainy morning. We had twenty minutes to sit him down. I told him what my film was about and we just argued it through. And, in fact, actually he helped, because he's a good teacher. It was like having a very quick tutorial. He shaped it down for me, and I told him what I was up to. He's a very clever man. And anyway, he was absolutely right on the nose. Because actually he agreed with what I was up to because he's had that experience with the administration. Sharp man.Eaves:
He makes that point that, if these people only stand for what the pollsters tell them to stand for, then what do they stand for?Curtis:
Exactly. That's the problem with politicians at the moment. I often get asked, "You made this mini-series that told us that Tony Blair is a creature of focus groups and then he goes and invades Iraq; why did he do that?" There are various theories about it. I suspect that actually he felt disempowered by the focus groups, that he was just a creature of that, and here came an issue that would give purpose and meaning to a politician like him and he went for it, but he did it on theory. He thought, "I, as a politician, ought to have something grand to do so I'll go and do this war." But it didn't quite work out the way he intended. It was an attempt to get back that sense of power and authority. That sense that we
know something that you
don't. I think that's what it is. I don't know, it's a mystery.Luddy:
I thought I found a clue to it in the first part of The Mayfair Set
. When I watched that, I said, "Well, we're in British territory
here. This belongs to them in their minds, and they're not going to let us go there without them being a part of it.Curtis:
Actually, that's a very good point. One of Blair's advisors is a man called Robert Cooper who has argued that what we need in a post-Cold War society is a new moral imperialism, much as the British had towards the end of their empire. And Blair may well have bought that for precisely that reason.Eaves:
Do you think that there's a lack of political imagination now? That things have just stopped?Curtis:
Yes. I think it's the sort of thing that people like me are dealing with. Politics has run out of steam. As I say in this film, in an age of politics where no one believes in anything, fear becomes the only thing to believe in. That's it. It's not a conspiracy. It's all we've got left. A new form of politics will emerge. I suspect it won't come from the Left. I suspect it will come from an area that we haven't yet thought of. Perhaps it will come out of science. But I expect we're at the end of the old politics.
Hannah Eaves is an Australian-born writer and filmmaker currently based in the Bay Area. Her writing can also be found in Intersection
magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
Adam Curtis is a British television documentary producer. He currently works for BBC Current Affairs. He is noted for making programmes which express a clear (and sometimes controversial) opinion about their subject, and for narrating the programs himself.
I'm PLEASED to be able to introduce you to two films that will really make you take apart some of the American Mythology you may have learned.
These address the same premise - that we live under the illusion of being a Free Society. Each film will give you profound insight as to where these freedoms have their boundaries in a capitalist society.
2002: The Century Of The Self (BBC Two) documented the rise of Freud's individualism led to Edward Bernays' consumerism. It received the Broadcast Award for Best Documentary Series and the Longman-History Today Award for Historical Film of the Year. It was released in the US through art house cinemas and was picked as the fourth best movie of 2005 by Entertainment Weekly.
2004: The Power of Nightmares (BBC Two) suggested a parallel between the rise of Islamism in the Arab world and Neoconservatism in the United States in that both needed to inflate a myth of a dangerous enemy in order to draw people to support them.
I discovered these originally while listening to Unwelcome Guests, a great show out of New York, that I Podcast a lot. They can still be found here:
Part 1 - on "Unwelcome Guests #235:Hacking the Matrix"
Part 2 - on "Unwelcome Guests #236:If We Have Information ..."
Part 3 - on "Unwelcome Guests #237:Leaving the land of the Cockayne"
The A-Infos Radio Project Collective CHECK IT OUT!
AND - the video is available RIGHT HERE on the website !
Part 1 - Baby, it's Cold Outside
Part 2 - The Phantom Victory
Part 3 - The Shadows in the Cave
Unwelcome Guests have just begun broadcasting the audio portion of "The Cenutry of the Self", which is as outstanding as it's successor!
They are here: Engineering America's FAUX Democracy
Part 1 - on "Unwelcome Guests #315: Slaphappinness Machines "
- Happiness Machines
Part 2 - on "Unwelcome Guests #316: Ephors and Citizens "
- The Engineering of Consent
Part 3 - on "Unwelcome Guests #317: The Policeman In Your Head "
- There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads
Part 4 - on "Unwelcome Guests #318: Gilded Cage
- Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering
And MPEG4 copies of the film are on The Internet Archive:
Curtis previously taught politics at Oxford University but left for a career in television. He got a job on the show That's Life! where he learned to find humor in serious subjects. He went on to make documentaries on more serious subjects but retained his playful tone.
Curtis's intensive use of archive footage is a distinctive touch of his. An Observer profile said:
- Curtis has a remarkable feel for the serendipity of such moments, and an obsessive skill in locating them. 'That kind of footage shows just how dull I can be,' he admits, a little glumly. 'The BBC has an archive of all these tapes where they have just dumped all the news items they have ever shown. One tape for every three months. So what you get is this odd collage, an accidental treasure trove. You sit in a darkened room, watch all these little news moments, and look for connections.'
The Observer adds "if there has been a theme in Curtis's work since, it has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragi-comic consequences of those attempts."
Curtis received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2005. In 2006 he was given the Alan Clarke Award for Outstanding Contribution to Television at the British Academy Television Awards.
Sadly, Curtis's documentaries have not yet been shown on American television. In fact, outside of San Francisco, practically the only way to have seen them in the US at all is through online bootlegs.
There's a great Interview with Adam Curtis posted at GreenCine:
That The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares have been screened in San Francisco is thanks almost entirely to Tom Luddy, a long time Bay Area film figure and cofounder of the Telluride Film Festival.