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

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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.