Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone inspired horror anthology Black Mirror begins on Sunday with “The National Anthem”, the first of three stand alone episodes which at once juggle razor sharp satire, silly jokes and disturbing imagery. It’s safe to say it’s unlike anything else you’ve seen on British television in the last twelve months – in fact you’d probably have to reach back to Chris Morris’ similarly warped Jam to find something even remotely similar.
The premise of this episode is difficult to explain without spoilers, so to put it extremely vaguely: it’s about a Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) who awakens one morning to find that a member of the Royal Family has been taken hostage and will be killed if he doesn’t fulfil an unusual and embarrassing demand on live television within the next few hours. He spends the rest of the episode racked with increasing levels of despair, as portrayed very humanely and without gimmick by Kinnear, trying to come to terms with whether or not he should, or indeed must, comply with the demand.
All three episodes are united by the theme of technology and where it is leading society. Here the first thought of the staff at Downing Street is not to tell the public about the crisis but, in today’s world, this is increasingly impossible – the kidnapper puts his video on YouTube. Then the topic comes to dominate discussion on Facebook and Twitter, with the PMs advisors increasingly swayed by public opinion, which is – throughout the episode – subject to whim. It’s also a running gag that the public are ahead of the 24 hour news channels who – super-injunction style – aren’t allowed to talk about the demand (and then, later, aren’t allowed to talk about it with the same degree of frankness).
Courtesy of the social networks, the Prime Minister’s dilemma is played out in public, quickly becoming the target of as many crude jokes and offensive slurs as po-faced comments about the kidnapping. As is so often the case today, people’s reactions become the story, with endless opinions polls and voxpop segments rolling on increasingly desperate and tacky 24 hour news channels. It’s a cruel and hyper-modern farce played like a thriller – and very straight.
It’s also very intelligently made, with all the media savvy you’d expect from someone who analyses TV for a living (with shows like Screenwipe and his newspaper column). In this episode audience discomfort comes from our complicity in the on-screen action – much in the same way it does Michael Haneke’s Funny Games but with more likelihood of it reaching the intended audience.
The show’s greatest stroke of satire though comes via the event I’m at pains not to talk about. No doubt many will find the central, black joke to be simple shock humour – and it may work on that level alone – but it also serves as the single biggest indictment against modern media and reality TV in particular in that it’s the only logical place Brooker could really go. Where else can you go in an age when George Galloway voluntarily acts like a cat on Big Brother and Brian Paddick eats kangaroo testes on I’m a Celebrity?
“The National Anthem”, like the subsequent two episodes, is extreme but never so extreme as to seem far-fetched. Its potential to sicken viewers lies in its uncomfortable closeness to where we sit now, albeit through a distorted, macabre lens. It’s also very funny and, with Kinnear presenting his Prime Minister so sympathetically, much more dramatic and nuanced than you might expect for a show in which… well… best you just wait and see.
“The National Anthem” is on Channel 4 this Sunday at 9pm. Read our interview with series creator Charlie Brooker.
Through his collaboration with Chris Morris writing Nathan Barley, to his insightful Screenwipe TV series and often hilarious Guardian newspaper columns, Charlie Brooker has established himself not only as one of the country’s most influential satirists, but also as a foremost media commentator. Today, at least for the left, he is as much part of the zeitgeist as the TV shows he trashes to bits. All of the above shows – as well as his well regarded Big Brother zombie apocalypse mini-series Dead Set - share at their core a fascination with how we engage with media, often with added emphasis on the technology involved and how that continues to change our society.
These concerns are once again in the foreground of new three-part series Black Mirror, which tells three stand alone horror stories very much in the spirit of The Twilight Zone. But these are highly satirical modern nightmares which use as jumping off points things that wouldn’t have existed even five years ago. Here are stories which take a skewed glance at where we are and where we are headed. They are equal parts funny, disturbing, tragic and horrific – and possibly represent Brooker’s best work to date.
Particularly the second episode, “15 Million Merits” (which airs next Sunday), which paints a dystopian future so bleak and yet so tangible that makes you gasp with despair as much as it makes you cackle with laughter. It’s also very beautiful and sincere – for me recalling Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (which is in fact the highest praise I am able to bestow on anything).
“In my head it was a cross between when Gordon Brown had to go and apologise to Gillian Duffy and I’m A Celebrity, in a strange way. That was effectively the starting point,” says Brooker. It’s also conceived as an antidote to those big budget US series that start so well and then run out of steam (stuff like Heroes basically): “A lot of high concept drama series are great for the first three episodes and then you get bored of the one concept.”
“In the broadest sense it’s about how technology is changing the world – but that makes it sound incredibly dry, like reading manual – which I hope it isn’t. It’s about that sense of unease that the world has changed very much in the last ten years in ways that I find it hard to express or come to terms with. It was inspired by watching The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and things like that. It felt like a good opportunity to do dark one-off tales. What I always liked was that didn’t know exactly what you were going to get, but you thought you were going to like it. Often with those things they were quite uncomfortable but that was part of the enjoyment.”
He’s certainly nailed that last part, which anyone who witnesses the closing moments of the first episode on Sunday will discover. As he says of the audience at the first screening: “It’s interesting to see the reaction shifts throughout the episode from laughter to nervous laughter to disgust.”
The first episode – “The National Anthem” – is about a Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear, below) whose life is thrown into chaos by public expectation that he fulfil, let’s say (for want of saving the surprise), an embarrassing demand. Here the horror and his humiliation are compounded by the uncensored, omnipresent and instant worlds of Twitter and Facebook, as millions simultaneously discuss his life without the restraint or accountability that would have been expected of traditional news coverage. Though the show’s writer and creator is nowhere near as downbeat on all things social media as that premise might imply – or indeed as many might infer from his persona as a jaded misanthrope.
When it’s put to Brooker – himself an active Tweeter – that the show could be read as a warning about Twitter itself as a destructive force in our lives, he laughs it off. Is he pessimistic about technology and the future of our species? “Probably less than people think. Not really, no. I think if I was really pessimistic I’d write things that were really cheerful to drag myself out of it – not that there aren’t elements of joy in all of these.”
Indeed there are moments of great joy, but don’t come to Black Mirror expecting a cuddle. According to Brooker, Black Mirror takes its name both from the Arcade Fire song and from the idea of a TV turned off – an unsettling image which perhaps implies your expensive flat-screen is nothing but a grim, 2001-style black obelisk reflecting the crushing void that is your life. If Brooker isn’t pessimistic about technology itself (and as a noteworthy advocate for video games I’d be surprised if he was) he is at least full of worry about the way in which social networking sites – and public opinion at large – are increasingly part of mainstream news coverage. Or even, in some recent cases, leading it.
“The first time we see the newsroom they’re moaning that everyone on the internet is talking about something that they can’t – and that was obviously inspired by the super-injunctions thing. They’re playing catch-up with the technology.”
The whole Twitter phenomenon could also have a say in the creation of TV in the future. Brooker, a vocal champion of such shows as The Wire, sees a slightly insidious side of the social network creeping in which could have a long-term effect on how shows are made: “I was reading the other day about a thing for telly execs where they could record in real-time the Twitter feed of all the comments being made about your program and then play them back alongside the program when you’re analysing it later to see at what point did public opinion… basically “at this point everyone said your character was a ****” so you fire the actor next week. I just thought that’s the ultimate focus group.”
The ultimate focus group: four words that will make any creative person shudder. Especially as so many people who take to the internet are so obviously unhinged, as Brooker has discovered whenever he makes the mistake of using his own Twitter feed to make jokes.
“In recent weeks I’ve amused myself and it’s amazing how many people take it really seriously – getting really annoyed and asking “are you having a breakdown?” and I was pissing myself. I was annoying car owners by claiming I’d never been in a car.” Later that night he told followers that he planned to take his very first car ride and that he was amazed to find cars contained seats. That people took him seriously and got angry is a source of amusement and concern in equal measure. Though Brooker tends to go with the former, saying that having once received death threats for a column he wrote he tends not to take the haters all that seriously. Still, it’s odd how people behave.
“People do odd things on Twitter that they wouldn’t do to your face, especially if you’ve been on the telly or anything like that, if they’re pissed off they will “@” message you and say “I’m unfollowing Charlie Brooker because he’s a boring prick” and it’s like they’ve sort of turned up and said it… Sometimes I just find it funny and think “what is wrong with you?” I say a lot of vitriolic things and that’s something I’m known for, but I don’t go up to people and say them and it fascinates me that often people aren’t aware of the difference. It’s as if people think there isn’t a real person at the other end and I find that more interesting than upsetting.”
Black Mirror is a three-part series that begins with The National Anthem on Sunday 4th December at 9pm, Channel 4.