Freudian Slippage



David Aaronovitch explores the influence of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud on British theatre, film, novels and biography and asks: has his impact on our writers and directors been slipping away?

On the stage of the Old Vic Theatre in London, David Aaronovitch meets Michael Billington, theatre critic of the Guardian, who tells him how arguably the greatest British actor of the last century, Laurence Olivier, was strongly influenced by Freud's ideas, along with his pioneering director, Tyrone Guthrie.

David and Michael also explore how Olivier's landmark, Oscar-winning movie version of Hamlet in 1948, was overtly Freudian - to the point where an American journalist was moved to lambast Olivier for overdoing it.

And David meets Jonathan Miller, whose production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in the early 1970s was set in Freud's Vienna.

Miller criticises Olivier's over-enthusiasm for Freud, which he says was widely shared by actors in the following decades, but has since worn off.

With the film historian Matthew Sweet, David looks at one of the biggest hit British movies of the 1940s: The Seventh Veil, starring James Mason.

This shows how Freud's ideas seemed to offer a kind of magic key that could open up and explain any character - whether newly written, or as old as Hamlet.

Sweet argues that, for a time, audiences' familiarity with Freud gave directors and screenwriters a powerful new set of stories.

But, he argues, since the work of screenwriter Leo Marks (Peeping Tom, Twisted Nerve) and of the director Ken Russell (Women in Love, Mahler), few British directors have made work as overtly engaged with such ideas as the 'split personality' and sexual repression.

The novelist A.S.

Byatt charts the profound but often ambivalent relationship with Freud of her predecessors, from DH Lawrence to Irish Murdoch.

She recalls her own resistance to the Freudian orthodoxies of Oxbridge in the 1950s, and how she has fought free of them.

And she reveals how her new novel features psychoanalysts as characters, without looking at the world through a Freudian lens.

The biographer Hermione Lee explains why 'psychobiography' flowered from the 1920s to the 1960s and how the notion that psychoanalysis could unlock every facet of a famous figure has faded, even as a more subtle Freudian influence endures.

And classicist Fiona McIntosh explains how the work most associated with Freud - Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Tyrannos - is now performed far less often than in the first half of the twentieth century.

And how, when it is, directors now tend to resist or avoid Freud's once ubiquitous 'complex'.

PRODUCER: Phil Tinline.

David Aaronovitch explores Freud's influence on British culture, and whether it has waned.

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David Aaronovitch explores the influence of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud on British society.

In the mid-twentieth century, Freud's idea of the unconscious had an impact well beyond the privacy of the psychoanalyst's consulting room.

But, David asks, has this influence slipped away?

The programme begins at the heart of the huge crowd that gathered to oppose changes in university funding in London in November.

Amid the demonstrators, social psychologist John Drury explains how Freud drew on the work of a 19th century Frenchman to develop a striking view of what happens to individuals in crowds.

Their unconscious fears and wishes take them over, he suggested and they become very open to manipulation.

From there, the historian and psychoanalyst Daniel Pick tells David how these ideas seemed to make sense of Nazism.

And along with historian Mathew Thomson, Pick explains how, during the Second World War, psychoanalysts were brought in by the British government to help manage a population under bombardment.

The war and its aftermath marked a high water mark of psychoanalytic influence on power - from the de-Nazification process in occupied Germany to the development of the Welfare State in Britain.

And they explain how Freud's ideas helped to shape the emerging consumer economy, not least through their influence on the great economist John Maynard Keynes.

With the historian of consumer psychology Rachel Bowlby, David discovers how that old model of the individual losing their will in a crowd underwent a strange transformation.

The old psychology of the mob in the street was transferred to the mum in the supermarket.

Both were thought to think in images.

Both, it seemed, were susceptible to the hypnotic power of simple, repeated messages.

And neither would let anything stop them having what they desired.

David visits London's ad land to meet the journalist John Pearson, who 50 years ago, anatomised London's real-life version of Mad Men.

They trace how this model of the malleable consumer was promoted by two American intellects who appeared to be at loggerheads.

Viennese psychology PhD turned ad guru Ernest Dichter, and his arch-critic Vance Packard, each had huge influence in this country with their shared vision of gullible masses manipulated by 'hidden persuaders'.

But David then visits an ad man who debunked this model in the early '70s.

Robin Wight recalls how he argued that treating consumers like passive, manipulable pawns was provoking serious resistance.

Wight now suggests that only neuroscience can provide the insights into the way consumers think, once promised by the Freudian Dr Dichter.

David talks to the former leading public relations adviser Julia Hobsbawm, who argues that mass manipulation remains prevalent.

But he suggests that the current Government's plans to 'nudge' the population towards altering their behaviour owe little to Freudian thinking.

And back amid the demonstration in central London, Drury contends that Freud's conception of the crowd was fundamentally wrong - which is why it now has little influence on social psychology.


David Aaronovitch explores Freud's influence on British society, and whether it has waned.