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)