Those who know me know that I’m very keen on Charlie Brooker. It was, in fact, mainly down to his TV crit column in The Guardian that I started this blog in the first place – though I’ve never been able to capture his unique blend of vitriol and surrealism, ending up with a style of my own.
Brooker long since stopped reviewing TV – as he said, it’s difficult being a TV critic when you’re appearing on it so often you might end up having to review yourself. But alongside his increasingly frequent appearances on BBC4 and his growth into a stalwart of TV satire, he’s also been having a stab at being a screenwriter. His first effort, an imaginative combination of zombie apocalypse horror with Big Brother called Dead Set, was a perfect blend of the tastes he has, which I mostly share with him – I actually loathe Big Brother, but there was a lot of fun to be had with a zombified Davina McCall tearing people’s throats out.
And now he’s back with three part anthology series Black Mirror, though apparently only the first two stories are by Charlie himself, the third being the work of Peep Show co writer Jesse Armstrong. This being Brooker, I was looking forward to his usual dark, misanthropic preoccupations. And I wasn’t to be disappointed. The basic premise of this first story, titled The National Anthem, was simple but as twisted as we could expect from Brooker – a popular Royal (the fictional ‘Princess Susannah’, basically a neo-Diana) has been kidnapped, and the hostage video uploaded to Youtube for all the world to see. The kidnapper has but one demand, which must be met to the letter of a list of specifics – the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig. At 4pm, live on every British TV channel. No fakery allowed, and the PM must take the act to “full fruition”. Only then will the Princess be released.
It’s a typically dark, blackly humourous concept for Brooker, who frequently uses his columns for long tirades against the debased nature of society in a way that mirrors the more publicity shy Chris Morris. And it was the debased nature of society that was on display here, too. With that premise, this could easily have been a black comedy romp in the style of The Comic Strip Presents. What we got was far more interesting. Directed with some panache by Faren Blackburn (recently responsible for about half the episodes of The Fades), The National Anthem was played dead straight, almost as a thriller in the vein of Spooks or House of Cards. After all, when you’re starting from an absurdist premise, the best way to exploit it is to play it naturalistically.
So the story progressed as PM Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear as a believable modern Blair clone) tried every avenue he could think of to rescue the Princess without having to resort to the humiliation of acceding to the kidnapper’s demand. The secret services are trying desperately to find the source of the uploaded video, tracking it down to a deserted college campus. This turned out to be a misdirection, but felt like perhaps a comment on the current government’s gutting of higher education. But I didn’t get the impression that Brooker was aiming his satire at any political party; Callow was noticeably not given any stated party affiliation, and his advisers referred simply to “the party”.
No, if anything the satire was aimed at society in general, and particularly the ways that modern media make us all complicit in truly horrific acts. Top of the list of course was social media, and the way it renders governments powerless to control the flow of information the way they used to. Of course, this can be a good thing, as in the Arab revolutions earlier this year. But it can also lead to some truly horrible bullying, as Brooker highlighted with the case of the Twitter abuse of (admittedly fairly awful) Youtube singer Rebecca Black.
An avid user of Twitter himself, Brooker made the social media instrumental to this twisted tale. Downing Street were trying to hush up the kidnapper’s demand with D notices served to news organisations, but of course that’s totally ineffectual these days. Inevitably, the demand was trending on Twitter worldwide, and eventually fictional news organisation UKN became the first to break the wall of official silence already being ignored by the non-British media. All this was (presumably intentionally) reminiscent of the recent wave of ‘super injunctions’ that failed to avoid their subjects being embarrassed even more when their identities were leaked on Twitter, inadvertently making them even more notorious than if they’d just ‘fessed up.
There is an argument that that’s hardly fair, and celebrities are still entitled to privacy too – one of the many subjects currently being debated by the Leveson enquiry into press ethics. This was touched on too, as UKN reporter Malaika had a direct line to a smitten aide inside No 10, gaining access to classified information by sending iPhone pictures of her tits at him. It felt like a bit of poetic justice when she was caught up in the Special Branch raid on the abandoned college and ended up shot in the leg as a result of her prying – a moral judgement perhaps?
More ambiguous morally was the role of Britain’s populace as a whole. Brooker cleverly used different groups of people watching the story unfold as a chorus, then as representative of society as a whole. We watched as the opinions of the online mob were swayed first this way and then that way by the news media – particularly timely at the end of a week which has seen the media crucifixion of Jeremy Clarkson. After an abortive attempt to fake the bestial deed arranged by frosty aide Lindsay Duncan is exposed on Twitter, the kidnapper sends what seems to be the Princess’ severed finger to UKN. Realising the danger to the Princess, opinion polls swing radically to the view that the PM must accede to the demand, and even his own party and aides are counselling that this is the only way left.
I have to applaud Brooker’s balls in actually following through with the premise. In most black comedies of this kind, there’ll be a last minute save to prevent the insane demand of the terrorists being met; not here. Here, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom eventually had to have sex with a pig in front of the whole nation.
Obviously that was going to be difficult to actually show even on Channel 4, but it was cleverly handled. And again, it was played dead straight, as something genuinely horrific. Once again, the population/mob were seen to be in thrall to the media, as streets all over the country were shown to be deserted, everyone glued to their TV sets. Despite an attempt to put people off watching by broadcasting a tone that could cause nausea, the mob remained jauntily baying for their leader’s blood as the characters we’d seen earlier treated it as a genuinely funny spectacle.
And then it actually happened, and we saw the people’s faces turn to looks of disgust, horror, pity and finally sympathy. Confronted by the horrifying reality of what they’d asked for, they were shown shamed as the act played out – for over an hour, as the Viagra-dosed PM couldn’t easily ‘finish’. But even then, they couldn’t bring themselves to switch off. That’s horribly plausible, and puts the viewer directly in their shoes – what would you do?
The horror of the act itself was cleverly conveyed through close shots of Rory Kinnear’s sweating, crying face, then later by his lengthy vomiting into the studio toilet. Then the final indignity happened – the Princess was released, totally unharmed (even the severed finger hadn’t been hers). And she’d been released half an hour before the deadline; the kidnapper reasoning, quite correctly, that everyone would be too swept up in the hysteria to even notice. It was quietly agreed that the PM must never, ever be told. But with the unrestricted flow of information we’d already seen, you had to wonder how long it would be before it did come out.
The fickle nature of the mob was on show again as the credits rolled over a news montage from one year later – Callow was more popular than ever for his ‘sacrifice’, and had been re-elected with an increased majority. But his wife can’t even bear to look at him any more – the true human cost of all this. Meanwhile, the kidnapper – a failed Turner Prize entrant who hanged himself as he realised what he’d done – is being lauded as having created the first great work of art of the 21st century.
This was comedy of the blackest order, and massively thought provoking. There are no easy answers to the issues raised; the internet and social media can be a tool for great good or great evil, and Brooker’s cynical view seems to be that society being what it is, it will tend more to the bad than the good. But it also places the viewer in the position of being one of the onlookers – and can anyone really say that they would have acted differently in this situation? Much as I loathe David Cameron, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t demand he be so thoroughly removed of all human dignity. But would I have thought that way before watching this? And if the situation truly came to pass, would I stick to my lofty principles or get swept up with the mob?
A very good start to the series then, which as its title references, is a ‘Black Mirror’ of modern society – on this evidence, at its worst. Next week’s offering (starring the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya out of The Fades) shows a dystopian future dominated by exploitative TV talent shows. Again, this doesn’t seem so far removed from the truth. But on the basis of this first episode, I’m guessing that it will be another dark distortion of something loathsome from the present.