Black Mirror (Channel 4)

Rachel Cooke has a nauseous reaction to a joke-free satire.

I've never met Charlie Brooker, who writes a column in the Guardian, but I know him from afar and he makes me a little uneasy. He's often right and he's often funny, but that doesn't give him a green light to be a self-righteous smart alec, does it? Or perhaps it does. Anyway, what I mean to say is that I'm writing this in the full knowledge that there is a strong possibility that he will rubbish me on Twitter as a moron and a prude. Then again, because I'm the last journalist in the western hemisphere who doesn't tweet - the only timeline in my office is a wooden ruler that lists, in chronological order, the kings and queens of England - I'm unlikely to find out if he does. Unless someone tells me. Yikes. I really hope they don't.

Brooker has written a new series of satirical films, Black Mirror (to be accurate, he has written two of three; Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show has written the third). In the first one, The National Anthem (4 December, 9pm), a princess called Susannah (Lydia Wilson) had been kidnapped and the prime minister, Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear), had it in his power to save her from execution. How? By having sexual intercourse with a pig live on television.

Metaphorically speaking, politicians shag animals all the time; we've all seen the photograph of Tony Blair kissing Colonel Gaddafi. But I'm not sure this was Brooker's point. His script, so modish you can probably find people wearing it in Hoxton Square, was more concerned with the digital mob - a rabble that includes 24-hour news, YouTube and Brooker's beloved Twitter - and just how terrified our politicians are of it. I thought this odd, given how nasty the film was (no one could describe it as funny, though the Radio Times had a damn good try). Why use a grenade to blast open a doll's house? Imagine if Jonathan Swift had devoted his energy not to the plight of starving children but to getting worked up about how much time Robert Walpole spent powdering his wig.

And haven't we seen all this before? The Thick of It brought new meaning to the words "craven" and "vanity" when it comes to politicians (though I will admit that you can enjoy the same effect simply by reading a single page of Alastair Campbell's diaries). So when a prime ministerial aide said, in tones of deep concern, "It's trending on Twitter" or "The Guardian are doing a live blog", one didn't exactly feel overcome with the script's cleverness. Ditto when a TV journalist kept emailing photographs of her bits to a special adviser in order to get a lead.

Where The National Anthem departed from The Thick of It was by following its storyline through. In any other show, the prime minister would have been saved at the last minute from the ignominy of his repellent task: the kidnap would have been exposed as a hoax, or the plan of his aide Alex Cairns (an ice-cool turn by Lindsay Duncan) to get a porn star to perform the act and then Photoshop the PM's head on to it would have come off. But there is something in Brooker - something that is at best boisterous and at worst misanthropic - that insists on taking things that bit further.

The prime minister had sex with the pig. "We've placed visual aids in your eyeline in case you get into . . . trouble," said Cairns, shortly before the PM lowered his trousers. Nevertheless, it took him a full hour to, er, complete the task. At which point, he was violently sick. Meanwhile, all Britain gawped. "This is history," said a junior doctor, his eyes drilling into a flat screen. The cast played this completely straight, every line delivered with utmost solemnity.

For my part, mild amusement turned first to distaste and then to nausea. No doubt Brooker would say this is precisely the reaction he was after. Twenty-first-century Britain is virtually unshockable; how marvellous to have some cynical hack on the point of retching! The trouble is that it was only the thought of porcine sex that was making me gag. I didn't feel any more worked up about our politicians, or the internet, or the prurience and exaggerated opinions of social networkers than I usually do.

Look, satire doesn't have to be funny. If it's going to be joke-free, though, it must do something else: stoke rage, or sound a warning, or pack a nifty rhetorical punch. The National Anthem did none of these. It was little more than a piece of bad taste, for which reason I doubt it will enjoy much of a cultural afterlife. Then again, what does? Satire - even the most savage kind - is such a flimsy, short-lived creature. Not so long ago, I was sitting in a swanky members' club. Behind me, on a giant screen, Stanley Kubrick's tenaciously violent Clockwork Orange was playing on a loop. No one even so much as looked up from their drink.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

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SRSLY #13: Take Two

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, the recent BBC adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie, and reminisce about teen movie Shakespeare retelling She’s the Man.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

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You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On Macbeth

Ryan Gilbey’s review of Macbeth.

The trailer for the film.

The details about the 2005 Macbeth from the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series.


On Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie

Rachel Cooke’s review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Sarah Hughes on Cider with Rosie, and the BBC’s attempt to create “heritage television for the Downton Abbey age”.


On She’s the Man (and other teen movie Shakespeare retellings)

The trailer for She’s the Man.

The 27 best moments from the film.

Bim Adewunmi’s great piece remembering 10 Things I Hate About You.


Next week:

Anna is reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Your questions:

We loved talking about your recommendations and feedback this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 



See you next week!

PS If you missed #12, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.