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
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR