Six years ago this month, Charlie Brooker took leave of his weekly TV column at The Guardian with a blistering final entry that was half mea culpa, half montage of his best bits. In it, he explained that after a decade, the fun had seeped out of writing cruel but honkingly funny caricatures of small screen personalities. It no longer felt okay to earn a living by describing David Dickinson as an “ageing Thundercat” or Anne Widdecombe as having “a face like a haunted cave in Poland”.
Brooker’s growing TV writing and presenting career had turned him from poacher to gamekeeper. You couldn’t sustain that act while mixing in showbiz circles, he explained. It wasn’t just the awkwardness, it was the guilt.
“Suddenly you’re standing in a room full of people you’ve slagged off in print,” he wrote “and they’re not 2D screen-wraiths any more, but living, breathing, fallible humanoids.”
Brooker’s been paying for his former sins ever since with Black Mirror, his acclaimed Channel 4 future tech anthology drama now at Netflix. Through its staging of nightmarish what-if scenarios (what if you could ‘block’ people in real life, what if criminals could be forced to experience their victims’ feelings, what if a copy of your consciousness could be used as a high-tech household appliance…), Black Mirror repeatedly reminds us that whatever technology enables us to do, real people are on the receiving end of our actions.
Back in July, I spoke with Brooker and Black Mirror producer Annabel Jones about what to expect from the new episodes arriving on Netflix this Friday…
When people think of Black Mirror, the first thought tends to be ‘aaah! The pig one! Brilliant, scathing, misanthropic, it’s about how we’re all idiots…’ but it actually has real empathy, your series. Underneath the horrible stuff, it seems that you’re really urging kindness and caution?
Charlie Brooker: I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, sometimes we do do that, The National Anthem was a caustic satire and sometimes that’s the way to go with the story rather than me being particularly misanthropic… But you see, even that I think is an empathetic story because the Prime Minister in that is…
CB: Extremely sympathetic. And the whole point of that is that everyone’s enjoying his downfall and then you’re confronted with the reality that that is happening to a human being and suddenly it’s not so funny anymore. I’m glad you said that.
I like to indulge the more sentimental side I suppose. Not sentimental, the more empathetic side I suppose and then also I do like [smacks fist into palm] the ones that are more like White Bear. Some of the ones we’ve got this time around are [smacks fist into palm] owww! [Laughs.] Basically they’re a bit owww! Sorry, probably outside they’ll think there’s a fight going on!
It’s all about that balance, but always, you need to be empathising with our protagonist or protagonists otherwise who gives a shit?
Annabel Jones: Exactly. I think what Charlie’s so good at is creating a sort of high-concept world but that world very quickly gets backgrounded because you’re caring more about the characters.
AJ: There’s a human drama at the heart of it, otherwise it’s so less powerful.
I know you’ve said Black Mirror’s episodes don’t have a moral or lesson, they simply leave things for people to puzzle over, but consistently there does seem to be a… I’m going off-topic here but do you know that Philip Larkin poem about running over a hedgehog with a lawnmower?
CB: No, but it sounds great!
It has a line ‘We should be careful/of each other, we should be kind/while there’s still time’. That seems to me to be what Black Mirror’s central worry is about, that in our use of technology we’re not being careful enough with each other and soon it might be too late?
CB: I suppose. I’m trying to think overall. Some of our stories, I think you’re right in that they don’t tend to have a message. There’s one this time that’s more of a romp, really, it’s not really particularly trying to push a point of view. But we’ve certainly got ones that are examining… We’ve got a story this time around that’s got social media and anger being expressed on social media at the heart of it, and it’s not particularly pointing a finger and going ‘That’s wrong’ or ‘Let’s get rid of Twitter then’, but there’s an examination of the sort of stuff that goes on.
Technology isn’t the villain and the people aren’t often really the villain so much as they’re weak. They’ve got weaknesses and flaws and it’s those that are then amplified by the technology in our story and that allows them to sort of fuck up. I suppose often when I’m writing them I’m just interested in the ramifications of whatever scenario we’ve set up and often amused by the ramifications when I’m writing, even though it’s usually played straight [laughs] but often I’m fucking howling with laughter the more horrible it is.
AJ: [Laughing] And if I cry at an episode, that delights him!
CB: Oh, I love it! If you cry at an episode that’s…
AJ: And you’re chuckling away!
CB: Brilliant. [Laughs] That’s a victory.
AJ: I think the series does highlight certain themes and issues, we just don’t necessarily spoon-feed an ending, a position on it. A lot of them, whether it’s The National Anthem or some of the ones in the current season, they are exposing and highlighting ugly themes.
And yet the episode I was given to preview, San Junipero, is quite beautiful and tender and romantic. Why was that the first one released to press?
CB: That was the most finished one! That was the first one we did. Certainly it was the first one written but partly I was thinking right, what do I want to do? What are people going to expect when they sit down to watch a new episode of Black Mirror? And what you’re going to expect is somebody with a translucent TV in a drone strike and a robot walking by… or frowning at a phone and going ‘aaah! Oh no! I’ve just deleted my own leg!’ or whatever. So I thought well, let’s not do that.
I kept saying I want to do an episode that’s set in the past, how do we do a period episode of Black Mirror? And simultaneously there was another idea we were thinking about and the two things sort of gelled and became San Junipero. What we were also trying to do is vary the tone slightly across the season, because there are six stories this time around, so you don’t want it to just be the devastating, bleak-em-up. Do you know what I mean?
CB: Exactly! However, having said that, if you don’t also deliver that then you’re wussing out. So across the season you’ll see that there’s… if you look at the different flavours of sauce in Nandos, there’s your Extra Extra Hot. You’re still going to get given that in some of the stories. But I think we wanted to expand the show a little.
AJ: But hopefully it still retains that thought-provoking, challenging slight unease you feel when you watched a classic Black Mirror episode.
CB: Classic? Wow! Classic Black Mirror eh?
AJ: You know what I mean, it still feels as if it has that Black Mirror flavour.
There’s a line in the trailer Netflix has released, I obviously don’t know the context yet but a man is shouting ‘you’re not in control of this’. That might be a fitting tag line for the entire show?
CB: Pretty much I suppose! Overall, looking at the stories, almost every story we’ve ever done is concerned with authenticity or reality in some way. That’s not something that we’ve gone in thinking ‘Right! How are we going to examine that now?’ It’s just when you take a step back you see that they’re actually all sort of in that mode. It’s always about unforeseen consequences and unforeseen problems, it’s not usually that someone’s created a machine that they want to enslave mankind with, it’s someone’s invented a new kind of… paperweight that [laughs] enslaves mankind. What the fuck am I talking about?!
AJ: A paperweight we’ve all willingly embraced!
CB: Yep, and for good reason, often.
You’ve been writing the series for six years now.
CB: Have I? God!
Do you think the way you write it has changed in that time? Are there things you’re now more willing to do, less willing to do…?
CB: Certainly these stories are a bit more expansive than they’ve been because we’ve got different running times. One of them is nearly feature-length, for instance. I’ve tried to vary our protagonists a bit more too, some of them are two-handers, some are… it’s not just like ‘a bloke wakes up and then his life falls apart!’ I’ve been trying to mix that up a little more.
Obviously, you try not to repeat yourself so that forces you to re-evaluate what you’re doing constantly. Again, generally I know that we’ve hit on a good idea if there’s a moment where I’m going “HA HA HA!” because that’s usually my starting point, me laughing.
AJ: And me crying.
You’ve retreated from ideas in the past because you saw them as too hard or too horrible. I remember you said at one point that Oona Chaplin’s character in White Christmas had a child at one point but you couldn’t go that far.
CB: Oh God yeah. We discussed it and it was too horrible. I even started writing a scene when she’s looking on the CCTV of the house and she sees her real self playing with her son and she’s literally pleading to be allowed to hold him again, and it was just too upsetting, too horrific really. because that’s halfway through the episode and you’ve got nowhere to go and there’s nowhere to go.
AJ: It’s also about the arc. Because that’s halfway through the episode and you’ve got nowhere to go from there.
Are there things in this six that surpass or equal that for horribleness?
CB: There are moments in this that are absolutely horrible, without a shadow of a doubt, there are moments that are absolutely horrible. I can’t really say too much. There are unsettling moments for different reasons. Hopefully there are some which are quite seriously powerfully unsettling and others where it’s more of a romp.
You’ve sort of trained your audience to be prepared for twists now. They’ll be on alert for them in the new episodes.
CB: It’s interesting. If you look at the first series there aren’t really twists, there kind of is in The National Anthem, but them it’s not about the twist, that’s an extra little kicker given to you at the end. Be Right Back doesn’t have a twist. Really, when we did White Bear that has such a big twist and the Christmas Special has got so many twists in it that in a way I think we did prime people to expect twists, so we don’t always have them this time around because we didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner too much.
What is useful about when there is a sort of pull-out to reveal moment going on is that it actually focuses the mind when you’re writing the earlier scenes because you’re thinking ‘right, how do I? I can only show this amount of the room… I can only show these characters from the waist up because they’ve all got robot legs!’ it’s a challenge so it keeps you engaged on some level.
AJ: The constant dilemma in the edit is how much we can get away with, how much we want to tease and be playful and not give too much away.
I’m being pushed to a last question now, so perhaps if I list the series three episode titles, you could give us a few words on what to expect from them?
Shut Up And Dance
CB: A grimy, contemporary nightmare? [Laughs] Set in absolutely present-day London. It’s not sci-fi at all.
CB: A pastel, playful satire about modern insecurity.
I’ve written Men Against Jive here, but I gather it’s actually Men Against Fire…
CB: Although Men Against Jive is a brilliant title! That’s a military story, that’s a difficult one to explain really because that’s sort of a war… it’s not just a war story. What would you describe that as?
AJ: Hard to say.
CB: That is quite hard-hitting that one. It’s a war story / almost The Walking Dead…
Hated In The Nation
CB: A social media detective mystery
And finally, Playtest
CB: A horrific romp with a gaming bent. Quite a lot of gaming themes coming up in this season actually.
Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, thank you very much!
Black Mirror series 3 comes to Netflix on Friday the 21st of October.