Charlie Brooker: Through a glass, darkly

“I mean, what is the point of me? I don’t really know.”

Charlie Brooker doesn’t know what he is any more. “I don’t think of myself as a journalist, but then nor do I think of myself as any of the other things that I do,” he tells me over the phone one morning, having woken up late after a night of scriptwriting. “I mean, what is the point of me? I don’t really know.”

He has a point. His career path has been more a series of drunken lurches than an orderly line. After dropping out of university he drew cartoons for the kids’ magazine Oink, and graduated to a comic strip on a games title, where he was asked to write reviews (“and I thought, ‘I’m not qualified to do that,’ which is a stupid thing to think, like someone is going to check your papers if you’re writing a review of Fallout 1 on a PC”).

For a feature, he prank-called the premium-rate phone lines offering “cheats”, and a compilation was made into a cover-mounted CD. That led to his broadcasting work; and a website satirising TV listings (sample programme title – A Muppet Schindler’s List) led to his review column in the Guardian. Now, he occupies a unique place in British TV: making it, criticising it and satirising it.

Besides his BBC show Screenwipe and his Channel 4 programme, 10 O’Clock Live, Brooker has quietly established himself as a superb writer of both broad comedy and pitch-dark satire. For last year’s Black Mirror trilogy, he wrote an episode in which the country’s beautiful young princess is kidnapped and the ransom demand is that the prime minister has to have sex with a pig, live on television. The idea might sound childish, but Brooker took it very seriously, and the result was the most disturbing piece of drama you could imagine: he unblinkingly investigated the mechanics of the act, the toll it would take on the PM and his wife, and the slow, awful way in which the public’s gleeful rubbernecking turned to self-disgust.

The second episode, 15 Million Merits, was co-written with his wife, Konnie Huq, with whom he has a seven-month-old son called Covey. They created a dystopian future in which daily life consists of pedalling an exercise bike and sleeping in a room lined with plasma screens, which constantly interrupt you with unskippable adverts (you know Facebook would kill to do this). A young man called Bing sacrifices his entire savings – 15 million merits – to help the woman he loves compete on a reality show he believes will help her escape. But in this world, there is nowhere to go. Abi ends up sentenced to life as a porn actress – and her drugglazed face pops up in Bing’s room every night.

Yer picks yer meats

Brooker is writing a second series of the show, but I have to ask him: how did it get made in the first place? How do you tell Channel 4 that you want to show the prime minister porking a pig? “That episode was a replacement,” he says. “There’s a script that is as yet unmade, that was bleaker.”

At short notice, he had to pitch to Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s creative officer. “I think they were worried that it would just be gross-out comedy . . . so I ended the meeting saying, ‘I’ll go away and write as much of it as I can so you can judge it.’ ” In the end, Channel 4’s only quibble was whether it had to be a pig. “We went around the houses. We thought about different animals: about frozen supermarket chicken, at one point a big block of cheese. But whatever you tried to substitute for it wasn’t quite the same – like if it’s a sheep, that’s just too comic. I suggested a duck, but that’s again just too weird. A pig is disgusting enough.”

We end by talking about one of the quirks of British law holding back our ability to satirise public life effectively: the ban on using footage of parliament in comedy shows. Last year Brooker was so frustrated that he re-enacted the Hackgate select committees using the cast of Made in Chelsea.

“Now that might be changing,” he says – and, with any luck, it will happen in time for the latest spinoff from Screenwipe, Newswipe and Gameswipe. “We were going to call it WeeklyWipe, but that just sounds like very poor hygiene.”

Charlie Brooker’s “I Can Make You Hate” is newly published by Faber & Faber (£16.99)

Charlie Brooker arriving at the Baftas this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.