The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary about Rupert Murdoch. Borrowing from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Karlin
tells the tale of commuter Michael Deakin (Nicholas Farrell), self appointed archangel, who falls asleep on his train and dreams of ridding Britain of the Dark Prince (Rupert Murdoch). The Voice of Reason stops him and not only exposes the futility of Deakin’s quest but confronts us, the silent majority, with our complicity in Murdoch’s rise to power.
Karlin guides us through the labyrinth of Murdoch’s psyche. Firstly ‘The Museum of the Fall’, a fable-like archive containing artefacts of Murdoch’s empire, where human sculptures display tabloid headlines that alter with the public mood, and where page three girls reveal the industrialisation of sex. Secondly, the telling silence that greets Murdoch’s 1989 address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where he calls for increased deregulation of television in the face of censorship. The Voice of Reason indicates to Deakin, “this is the silence of democrats … and the Dark Prince could bathe in that silence”
Karlin’s film is a stinging indictment on the Left’s failure to counter Murdoch’s increasing influence in the British media since the late 1960s, and consequently reveals the Left’s tendency to create their own monsters (Murdoch) in order to conceal their guilt. As Karlin remarks in an interview before his death, “In a way you could say it is a very healthy part of British democracy, whereby you invite the wolf who doesn’t disguise himself at all. But if you are going to invite the wolf, then you better start shaping up and debating.” Fifteen years later, over to you Lord Justice Leveson…
The Q&A is chaired by Picture This’ Dan Kidner, with Holly Aylett and Karlin’s cinematographer Jonathan Bloom.
The Serpent (1997) was originally entitled The Cancer in tribute to Dennis Potter, who named his pancreatic tumour “Rupert” in his famous interview with Melvyn Bragg. Potter, in a parting shot, stated he would love to shoot Rupert Murdoch, who not only lowered the standards of British journalism but had contributed to the wholesale pollution of British political discourse. The Serpent, Marc Karlin’s film broadcast on Channel 4 in 1997, is a fantasy drama-documentary told through Milton’s Paradise Lost. Rupert Murdoch is cast as the dark prince and Michael Deakin, played by Nicholas Farrell, a liberal, London based architect, sets out to destroy the mogul who has made England, “a hard, sniggering, resentful, hard shoulder of a place”.
What stops Deakin in this quest is his Voice of Reason, “Could it really be the devil that has given you 5,000 channels – soaps, sport, sci-fi, music, games, arts, education, videos on demand, data services? Free will on this earth has been restored and, according to you it is the devil that has done it”. Karlin’s film is an indictment on the liberal establishment’s failure to do anything about Murdoch’s increasing influence in British media. He reveals how readily the Left of the 1980s and 90s have created their own demons in order to conceal their own stagnation.
Karlin integrates footage of Murdoch’s 1989 address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival to illustrate the sheer lack of any oppostion. The camera zooms in on the audience of British TV executives, who listen in respectful silence as this self-styled champion of liberty mounts a pulpit to accuse them of waging the same sort of thought control as the established church before the invention of the printing press. The Voice of Reason indicates to Deakin, “this is the silence of democrats … and the Dark Prince could bathe in that silence”
Here is an excerpt from a Radio 4 interview broadcast in February 1999. Marc is being interviewed by Patrick Wright on his Outriders programme.
PW: You’ve also got in that film footage of Murdoch himself talking at Edinburgh. There he is, and he’s outlining his vision, saying this is the new – almost the Copernican revolution! We’re going to turn the world of media upside down, we’re going to deregulate, there are going to be a thousand channels of whatever. You then show the audience, who are basically television professionals to a man, and a woman too, I guess, looking apprehensive and saying nothing. And, you’ve talked about silence. Now, in a lot of your recent films you re-show television footage, whether it be Newsnight or whatever, whether it be people responding to how marvellous Princess Diana was… And you show your own impatience by revealing images of inertia, of concessions you think should never be made. What is that we should have done with Murdoch?
MK: Well, I find it pretty strange they invited him. In a way you could say it is a very healthy part of British democracy, whereby you invite the wolf who doesn’t disguise himself at all. But if you are going to invite the wolf, then you better start shaping up and debating. I mean, I think Murdoch in The Serpent… I think he does represent the real contradictions of Milton’s Satan, so the Edinburgh Festival thing was about that contradiction. On the one hand you invite him, on the other you don’t fight against him. You say: “How terrible it is, Murdoch is going to ruin England!” You know, the number of articles that have been written about Murdoch ruining England, as if those people who have been ruined have had no participation in it whatsoever. They are virgins, they are white paper, they have no soul, they have no passion, they have no heart, they have no ideas, nothing. Murdoch, apparently, has walked all over them. It’s Murdoch who’s done it, not us. That really does make me angry, because you can’t have your cake and eat it. I mean, you can’t, on the one hand say: “We’re democrats, therefore Murdoch can do everything he wants” and on the other: “We can’t stand for our own values because that would be imposing.” That would be saying: “This is what we stand for,” and that would be hideous because that means we would be censorious!
The Serpent is a pertinent reminder of our own culpability surrounding Murdoch’s rise to power, like a cancer being very much part of us and not a foreign body however strongly we deny its existence. The film succeeds in offering a passionate and multifaceted argument to the present debate, overshadowed by the relationship between the press and politicians, and one that perhaps is being neglected by the Leveson Inquiry.
The film was recently screen at the Arnolfini at the Mark Karlin weekend with Picture This. A Q&A with Jonathan Bloom, The Serpent’s cinemathagrapher, Holly Aylett, former editor of Vertigo Magazine, and Picture This‘ Dan Kidner will go up shortly.
This month Picture This, in association with the research project “In the Spirit of Marc Karlin”, held an exhibition and screening programme focusing on the work of British filmmaker Marc Karlin (1943-99). Marc Karlin is an important but neglected figure within the British film avant-garde of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Arnolfini, hosted a weekend of screenings and talks which began with the seminal, Nightcleaners (1974). Shot in black and white, and punctuated with sections of black leader, Nightcleaners fuses political documentary with a rigorous reflection on the materiality of film and the problems of representing struggle. The programme continued with three films that Karlin made for television in the 1980s and 90s. For Memory (1986), features E.P. Thompson, and explores historical memory, Between Times (1993) looks at the fate of the British Left in the wake of Thatcherism, and The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary about Rupert Murdoch told through the lens of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Each film brilliantly captures the mood of the left in Britain through the 80s and 90s, whilst the aesthetic and political issues, and questions, they raise remain relevant and urgent.
The weekend ended with a round table discussion with contributors Holly Aylett, Jonathan Bloom, Kodwo Eshun, Luke Fowler, Andy Robson, Sheila Rowbotham, Steve Sprung and hosted by Dan Kidner.Picture This presents Marc Karlin, Roundtable discussion.
The audio from the weekend’s Q&As will soon be up.