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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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.