Housing officer Brian features in Channel 4's How To Get a Council House. Photo: Channel 4
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Channel 4's How to Get a Council House is infuriating and compassionate by turns

Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham?

Not Safe for Work; How to Get a Council House
Channel 4

Two episodes in and the jury is still out on Not Safe for Work (Tuesdays, 10pm), Channel 4’s new comedy-drama in which a clever, sardonic and mildly despairing civil servant called Katherine (Zawe Ashton) is sent by her bosses from London to Northampton to work in what looks like an out-of-town branch of Staples on a futile project known as “the Immigration Pathway”. The cast is great and I do like the “austerity Kafka” vibe: its emotionally and financially precarious characters are stymied by management-speak as if by shackles.

But the writing: it’s so uneven. Katherine’s loser colleagues – the coke-head Danny (Sacha Dhawan), the super-square Jenny (Sophie Rundle) – are so cartoonish that her lowly new position among them seems utterly implausible. Then there’s the question of tone. One minute, she’s taking the mickey. “Did they not have any Calippos?” she asks the infantile Danny, finding him in the car park with two ice creams in his hands. The next, she’s having a flashback to the baby she lost before her divorce. The sadness and the clowning seem sometimes to belong to different shows entirely.

Still, I will keep watching. I approve mightily of Katherine, who isn’t entirely adorable; my crusade on behalf on unlikeable female characters, whether on TV or in books, is ongoing, despite some fairly hairy experiences at recent literary festivals (oh, how the lady readers out there want women characters only to be “nice”). I love the way she calls her Joe Root-lookalike ex Anthony (Tom Weston-Jones) a “total bell-end” to his face and in front of the entire office. It pleases me no end that she loves her job (Northampton posting aside) and is good at it. When she demolishes Danny’s crummy ideas – he has suggested that the Home Office buys a lot of tents for new immigrants, what with camping being such a very British pastime – it’s like watching a stoat swallowing a vole. She’s magnificent.

There’s something else going on here, too, which is that while I watch Not Safe for Work, I experience a kind of retrospective Schadenfreude. The series reminds me forcefully of my twenties, when I, too, was at the mercy of human resources (or, as we used to call them in journalism, that “bitch/bastard on the news desk”). Thanks to this, I’m filled with gleeful relief whenever Katherine and the others gather at some half-empty taco place to toast God knows what. Oh, the misery of office drinks with your rivals, your boss and your office crush. Oh, the loneliness of your first job: the boredom, the fear, the penury. If Katherine doesn’t sleep with someone highly inappropriate soon – my money’s on Nathaniel (Samuel Barnett), who looks about 12 and wears his political correctness like a neon sign – I’ll eat my novelty pencil sharpener.

Channel 4’s specialities right now are comedy-dramas and the kind of documentaries about the poor and dispossessed that make some cross and others roll their eyes and wonder why IDS, George and Dave don’t hurry up. How to Get a Council House (Mondays, 9pm) is its latest offering in the latter vein and, yes, it’ll make lots of people boil with rage. Me? Let’s see. Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham? (I’d rather not be Andy Burnham.)

In Portsmouth, Britain’s most crowded city, a couple complained to their housing officer, Billy, that their landlord had threatened them with eviction. When Billy, having spoken to the landlord, who was unhappy with the state of the property, came round to tell them that if they’d only clean up the dog shit in the yard and apply a little elbow grease to the bathroom and kitchen, all would be well, what he got was abuse and indignation. These two followed a racist – “Muslims, Pakis . . . If you’re white, English [like us], you should be first in line!” – and a woman who said she would rather make her children homeless than live in a second-floor flat. Truly, the only thing to do in such moments, left-liberal-wise, was to focus on the saintly Billy and his long-suffering colleagues, who treated everyone the same way: kindly and with great patience. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.