As a longstanding critic of television and videogames, as well as a presenter and writer, Charlie Brooker’s better placed than most to create a scathing three-part series, Black Mirror, on the effect media and technology has on society.
In fact, this first episode, The National Anthem, reads like a condensation of all his past experience; it contains the cynical misanthropy of his old Guardian Screen Burn columns, a smattering of the profane and witty dialogue from his brilliant Nathan Barley comedy series, as well as the kind of behind-the-scenes insight into TV production that his work on programmes such as You Have Been Watching and 10 O’Clock Live may have afforded. One plot point even appears to pay homage to Brooker’s earliest beginnings on the mildly controversial 80s comic, Oink – though we’ll leave that particular reference for you to discover for yourselves.
The National Anthem is like a taboo-busting take on US thriller series, 24. There’s a kidnapping, ransom demands, and a race against time to catch the perpetrators. Rory Kinnear stars as the British Prime Minister, Michael Callow, who’s awoken early one morning by his advisors with some disturbing news: Princess Susannah has been taken hostage.
An emergency meeting is called, and the ransom video is played; if the princess is to be released unharmed, the PM will have to do something far too shocking and bizarre to risk spoiling here. It’s sufficient to say that, when the demands were read out, you probably won’t be sure whether to laugh or gasp in astonishment.
Brooker’s choice of ransom demand here is a clever one; he sidesteps any potential accusations of employing shock tactics by gradually raising the levels of tension as the hour-long drama reaches its climax. At first, we’re almost invited to titter along to what the kidnapper demands; gradually, however, any laughter will surely begin to stick in the throat, as the true horror of what Callow faces becomes apparent.
The National Anthem succeeds partially because of Kinnear’s excellent performance; he plays the role absolutely straight, and while political leaders seldom make for sympathetic protagonists, Kinnear’s PM is human and entirely relatable. Brooker’s script slyly runs the gamut of dark humour and stark truth; by the drama’s final stages, it’s mutated into something far more disquieting and demanding of the viewer than mere black comedy.
This is because The National Anthem makes some important observations about social media and the way it drives public opinion and alters the way news is reported. With the Internet making a mockery of injunctions – super or otherwise – and information now disseminated more quickly than ever before, the episode offers a quite true-to-life instance where both politicians and those in the traditional media are constantly on the back foot.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube users are more able to talk more freely (and mockingly) about the kidnapping demands than TV journalists, forcing them to go to ridiculous extremes to gain a story angle that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere. The prime minister is himself a hostage to the whims of his voters which, thanks to the web, can change within the space of a single tweet or Facebook update.
Given the exceptionally graphic way the recent execution of Colonel Gaddafi was handled by the world’s media, the argument presented here – that the demands of social networks have forced traditional news channels to report in increasingly ugly detail – takes on added relevance. There are visual references, too, to the military execution of Osama Bin Laden, and a disquieting examination of our general appetite for salacious detail, irrespective of the cost to an individual’s privacy.
In scenes reminiscent of Brooker’s Channel 4 zombie satire, Dead Set, one portion of The National Anthem sees London’s streets eerily deserted, as the bovine populace crowd around the nearest television to see what happens next. This first episode of Black Mirror offers up a grim yet undeniably compelling, truthful caricature of post Web 2.0 society. It doesn’t always make for easy or cheerful viewing, but then again, we wouldn’t expect anything less from a mind as creatively acerbic as Brooker’s.