“This is a worrying time for all of us, but it’s important to laugh!” Charlie Brooker sounds unconvinced as he says this, banging his homespun cardboard desk in frustration. So begins the coronavirus special of his comic BBC review show usually known as Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe. Starting “2,000 billion years ago, or ‘January’ as I like to call it”, Brooker reflects on the weeks before the pandemic hit the UK, the ensuing government reaction, and the surreality of the “new normal”.
There are plenty of laughs. Beautifully, almost poetically mild insults thrown at Matt Hancock somehow make him seem a more risible figure than any caustic barb could have done. He is alternatively described as “Health Secretary and your sister’s first boyfriend with a car, Matt Hancock”, “Peter Pandemic”, “the estate agent boy”, and “this boy called Matt Hancock”, doomed to spend his days answering journalists’ questions “like he was in a sort of call centre in hell”. (I was delighted by a cameo from the New Statesman’s very own Patrick Maguire quizzing the government on their economic modelling of various lockdown exit scenarios, which prompted a long pause and a polite murmur of, “Um, Chris, go ahead…”) “Apprentice finalist Rishi Sunak” and Chris Whitty (“Tintin prematurely aged after watching his dog drown”) get their turn, too.
By focusing on the weeks before lockdown, Brooker exposes the government’s farcical inaction with startling clarity. Certain clips – such as the now-infamous moment Boris Johnson boasted of shaking hands with coronavirus patients – seem incomprehensible. All this makes for an hour of television that is frequently more rage-inducing than funny.
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show