Animal shows aren’t about animals

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Animal shows are far more about us than they are about the animals, Adam Curtis contends:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The original post is chock-full of animal videos.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    This piece just goes to show that there’s a certain kind of leftist who can’t even watch “Animal Planet” without being thrown into frenzies of analysis about What It All Means and how David Attenborough is actually a minion of Thatcher and Reagan. For God’s sake, is there anything that these people can just enjoy?

  2. Alex J. says:


    There was no need to wait for youtube to see silly animal videos. They’ve been on America’s Funniest Home Videos all along.

  3. James James says:

    The “forces of reaction and market conservatism” vs animal videos? Fair enough.

    The thing is, all the things that Curtis doesn’t like —

    • “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.”
    • “natural inevitability”
    • “an implicit conservative message — the eternal law of the jungle.”

    — are reality.

    “Family” is “naturally inevitable”, in the sense that all animals are descended from others. Parents must “invest” in their offspring. Some animals have more children and invest less per child, other have fewer children and invest more per child, but all children take some resources to produce at all: children are an investment. Animals must invest in their young for their genes to survive and spread. The one thing we can say for certain is that genes for looking after (“investing in”) the offspring of other animals will not spread. Presumably Curtis doesn’t like this.

    As for the law of the jungle, maybe you can abolish “Social Darwinism” but you can’t abolish Darwinism.

  4. Edward M says:

    “…our conservative age…”

    No clearer illustration of the Left’s persistent self-perception as the heroic underdogs, in complete disregard of reality.

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