Black Mirror interview: Charlie Brooker, Jon Hamm, Rafe Spall

We chatted to Charlie Brooker, Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall about tech dystopia Black Mirror’s terrific festive episode, White Christmas…

This interview contains a spoiler for, er, The Snowman.

Airing tonight on Channel 4 is White Christmas, a feature-length episode of Black Mirror that weaves together three tech-paranoia tales set against the backdrop of the festive season. Writer Charlie Brooker likens the special to a selection box – a sound description if you can imagine Cadbury’s substituting Crunchies and Curly Wurlies for tragicomic ruminations on voyeurism, torture and ostracisation.

It’s a terrific ninety minutes; funny, acerbic and eventually horrifying. It feels exactly like watching a condensed series of Black Mirror in a single sitting, which should be both recommendation and warning to fans of the show. However disturbing a reflection of our world Brooker shows us though, in his own words, “There’s nothing in that that’s going to be as bleak as whatever the fuck Eastenders is going to do.”

We enjoyed a round-table chat with Brooker and White Christmas stars Jon Hamm (Mad Men, A Young Doctor’s Notebook) and Rafe Spall (Pete Vs Life, Life Of Pi) about Black Mirror, Eastenders at Christmas, the intrinsic horror of both The Snowman and the Sainsbury’s ad, and er, making love to pigs.

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Fair warning to those with sensitive dispositions, there’s swearing ahead…

Charlie, a few years ago you wrote that you’d cut off your own thumb to watch the next season of Mad Men early…

Charlie Brooker: What a crawler I am!

Presumably you didn’t have to go to those lengths to get Jon involved in Black Mirror?

CB: No, I don’t think I cut off any body parts. I still want to know what happens in the next Mad Men but I’ve got to wait until 2015. [To Jon] You know.

Jon Hamm: It’s in the can.

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CB: It was fortuitous, Jon Hamm’s involvement in Black Mirror. He’s probably better at telling how you got involved than I am.

JH: It was incredibly fortunate because I was over here doing press for Million Dollar Arm and I had asked my agent, does anybody know this guy, Charlie? And they said, actually, we just signed him. We both had a free night and we were able to sit down and have dinner, myself, Charlie and Annabel [Jones, Black Mirror producer] and he talked about this project he had going. In general terms it was ‘I like you’, ‘You like me’, and it was a really fun night. Then a couple of weeks later I got an email saying would you ever want to be in one of these? And I said yes I would, and fortunately he had one and offered it my way.

Are you finding that Black Mirror’s going global now? It just went on US Netflix and we’re seeing all these US critics discovering it for the first time.

CB: It has travelled a lot more than I thought it would. It’s big in China, it’s big in Spain… It’s obviously not as colloquial as I thought it was. It’s because technology is a global thing and wherever you go, people are prodding the same devices and worrying in the same way and have had their lives slightly altered in the same way, so I guess we’re fortunate in that we’ve tapped in to a sort of global sweet spot of enchantment or anxiety and there’s not many shows doing that. It’s been really interesting the reaction over the last week or so because it went up on US Netflix and suddenly it’s gone [huge].

JH: I just got in town from the US and I’ve been watching very closely how it’s reached some sort of tipping point, because the avalanche of people that have now seen it or are now talking about it in the States alone… no one had seen it when I came over here to shoot it, no-one knew what I was talking about and now I have studio executives saying ‘oh my God, have you seen this show?’ and I said ‘Yeah. I’m in one’. [Laughing]

Charlie, how excited were you to hear that Stephen King was a fan of Black Mirror?

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CB: That was great. Stephen King tweeted that he’d watched them all and really enjoyed it. You can’t get much better praise than that. I’m a big Stephen King fan. He’s writing the best – for any writer – he’s written the best book on writing as well, his book On Writing is the best book on writing  that I think I’ve ever read.

I think I probably smiled? That’s about as effusive as I get about anything, because whenever anything nice happens in the world I always expect something appalling to happen immediately afterwards, so I’m wary of greeting things with…

Rafe Spall: What’s wrong with you?!

Speaking of which, would you say that Black Mirror isn’t necessarily pessimistic about technology, just about people?

CB: I wouldn’t say it’s pessimistic about people. I think it’s sympathetic about people actually. It is expressing a worry that maybe we don’t have the wherewithal to handle the tools we’re creating for ourselves.

Really, it’s an excuse to explore fun ‘what if’ ideas and technology is the playground for that. I’ve always loved those ‘what if’ ideas that you get in shows like The Twilight Zone or Tales Of The Unexpected and it’s a good backdrop for those. I wouldn’t say it’s pessimistic necessarily about humankind, it’s just that’s the way it’s seen! [Laughing]

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JH: We do a pretty good job of being pessimistic all by ourselves. On the flight over, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time in a long time – I hadn’t seen it in quite some time – and of course the discovery of tools leads immediately to the murder of another ape. So that’s what we do when we’re given tools, we’re like ‘hey look at this, this is a super-functional thing. Kill!’ [laughter].

Do you see similarities between Mad Men and Black Mirror, Jon? You could say that one makes us feel ashamed of our past, and the other makes us feel anxious about our future.

JH: Charlie talked about the colloquial nature of the show and I think it’s strange that Mad Men being set in a very specific time in a very specific place in a very specific moment in US history resonates for so many other cultures. Like a lot of great programmes – Black Mirror included – you can put a lot of your own anxiety and experiences into the characters, whether people consider themselves like Don or like Peggy or like Roger or whatever, you can also see yourself. In Black Mirror, it’s in the future, or a society that looks an awful lot like ours but is subtly different, so you can project yourself quite easily into it.

One of the plot points in White Christmas is the ability to ‘block’ people, as you might in social networks, in real life. If you could block anyone in real life, who would it be?

CB: Everyone [laughter].

I think people do that, don’t they, when they’re commuting? If I sit on the tube I put headphones in and I stare at a book or anywhere but another human being. I think when you’re commuting you just do it psychologically to get through the day in a city.

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In everyday life I think it would be really destructive, that’s kind of what happens. We can’t say too much about the story but [to Rafe] you’re involved in a blocking incident. I think there’s no way back. If you were to block someone, the conversation has ended, it’s not like you can build bridges. I don’t know that I would block anyone particularly in person. I’m on Twitter, but I don’t tend to block people unless they’re just unrelentingly unpleasant.

RS: I get a thrill out of even the most annoying of people. I do. I sort of encourage them to be even more annoying versions of themselves, so if someone’s got a big ego I’ll feed it. I’ll be like ‘tell me about that, man” [laughing]. I like it, I get a thrill out of it, I don’t know why.

CB: You’re sick!

RS: I know, because actually when you get past it, most people are alright aren’t they, and people only misbehave because they’re frightened in some way, so there’s no-one I’d block.

So you Rafe, would block no-one and Charlie would block everyone?

CB: I’d only block them for the duration of a tube journey, just because I can’t handle the closeness and claustrophobia of it.

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Charlie, is doing a Christmas episode in particular a way to counteract the sentimentality of things like Monty the Penguin?

CB: Like the general Christmas feel-good fare that you get on TV? I don’t think so, not really.

I mean [the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert] is incredible. I think it’s fucking incredible that there’s an advert for a fucking supermarket that turns the First World War into an advert for a fucking chocolate bar. I think it’s staggering.

JH: What am I missing?

CB: There’s an advert about a chocolate bar and the proceeds from the bar go to a charity, so nyehh, but still, it literally hovers up from the killing fields for the Sainsbury’s logo. That’s quite… Having said that, I quite like Christmas Specials and I guess I kind of miss the tradition on TV for ghost stories at Christmas and fairly creepy things at Christmas. They used to often show horror movies at Christmas and so I think it’s an evocative time and it felt like if we’re going to be doing a big one-off that’s our Treehouse Of Horror episode, Christmas felt like a good fit for it, more so than Halloween. For me, it’s a more evocative time, it gives us a slightly different spin on things.

RS: When you think about The Snowman, there’s a massive melancholy to it and a strangeness to it. If you actually think about what it means, a boy gets stolen out of his bed…

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CB: By a man made of ice!

RS: Who then dies… spoiler alert! That’s definitely otherworldly. It’s a fucking flying Snowman, of course it is. That always made me feel creepy.

CB: Eastenders at Christmas is never a cheerful, feel-good thing, that’s kittens being thrown in a cement mixer for an hour every Christmas as a tradition. [To Jon] I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it.

JH: I have actually seen Eastenders.

CB: But have you seen an Eastenders Christmas episode?

JH: No.

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CB: Well, you are missing out.

RS: Lots of divorce papers served and stuff. Dead bodies.

Black Mirror does fit in with Christmas fare though because there tends to be a moral stance or a message in your episodes, and lessons are very Christmassy things…

CB: I don’t know that there is much of a lesson, to be honest. I mean The Twilight Zone would literally often spell out a lesson at the end and I think we tend to do that less. I wouldn’t say that there’s necessarily a lesson in this one. Well, I suppose there are moral conclusions you could draw. Do people get just desserts? I suppose they do within this story. There are certainly things presented in it as being bad and wrong but I don’t hope it’s not preachy or didactic or anything like that. I think there’s usually some sympathy involved. I guess with the blocking thing it’s sort of saying that the notion of shutting things down can cause more problems than you might think. But it’s not like ‘A Very Special Christmas Episode’ with an issue at its core.

Jon and Rafe, did you have a particular episode of Black Mirror from the previous series that made you think you really wanted to be involved in the series?

JH: Any programme that features someone fucking a pig on live television automatically appeals to me [laughter]. It’s right there on my resume, it’s the first line under ‘special skills’.

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RS: It was that close in Mad Men, wasn’t it, to it happening?

JH: It was so close! It’s how the show ends actually, me buried inside… except it’s a male pig. [Everyone laughing] It ends with a squeal.

RS: I came to [Black Mirror] late so I did it purely on the script. I’d read another script in the past of a previous episode, so I knew the world I was getting into, but it was the quality and originality of the writing and the people involved. I knew that Jon was going to do it and I just thought it was… I’ve said this a lot but it truly is wholly original and that’s a very rare thing to come across in my industry.

Charlie, do you ever fear running out of ideas for future episodes of Black Mirror?

CB: No, because luckily the world is so horrible and evolving that constantly every day there’s a new thing, constantly. There’s constant inspiration I guess you would say. We touch on all sorts of things in this episode, there’s stuff about Pick-Up Artists and stuff about privacy.

RS: It’s timely.

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CB: Exactly. I was looking at those reports about that pick-up artist who was being denied entry to the UK, Julien Blanc, who was just banned from entering the country.

JH: We were talking about it previously, the Sony hack, that’s a huge thing. That could not have happened ten years ago. It was impossible for that to happen, the amount of information and the back-channelling and squabbling and politics and petty personal stuff is now laid out for the entire world to look at, point at and laugh at, and the people that are caught up in it have got to be mortified. When all of your private information – it happened recently in the UK with phone-hacking – is shared and sniggered at, it’s mortifying and terrifying that that can happen that so easily.

RS: Because I think most of us have written things in emails that if they ended up in a newspaper it would be career over! Game over!

JH: That’s a wrap! It was a good ride!

CB: It’s a real problem for comedians now when they’re trying out material, they never know if someone’s going to be filming it in the audience…

RS: Chris Rock was saying something about that.

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CB: Yes, and how can you work out where the limit is? If you overstep the mark you can get…

JH: …you get blasted by everyone in the world.

So to sum up then, the world is a terrible place and Black Mirror can run forever?

CB: Let’s hope so! [laughter]

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