Earlier this year, Channel Four screened Black Mirror, a three-part series in the tradition of The Outer Limits of The Twilight Zone, where each instalment introduced its own characters and nightmarish scenarios. The first was about a British Prime Minister forced to perform a hideous act on live television. The second and third were both about relationships torn apart by two very different forms of future technology.
Although not written solely by Charlie Brooker – he wrote the first, co-wrote the second with his wife, Konnie Huq, while Peep Show co-writer Jesse Armstrong wrote the third – his dry wit and fascination with technology means it’s entirely in keeping with his lengthy body of newspaper columns and television shows, including topical series Newswipe, and zombie horror Dead Set. The first episode of Black Mirror may even have distant echoes of Brooker’s early work as a cartoonist on the controversial 80s comic, Oink, though we’ll let readers discover that connection for themselves, assuming they haven’t seen the episode already.
With Black Mirror out on DVD later this month, we caught up with Mr Brooker to talk about the process of writing the series, as well as videogames, and what he’s up to next…
The logical place to start, I suppose, is with Black Mirror, which is out on DVD this month, I understand.
That’s true. That’s definitely true. On the 27th, I believe.
So where did the inspiration for it come from?
After I’d done Dead Set, I thought I’d like to do another drama of some description. I was doing Newswipe and all sorts of other things, and I wanted for a long time to do a Twilight Zone-style anthology series. I’m a big admirer of the Twilight Zone series, and I remember when I was younger, watching Tales Of The Unexpected and really enjoying the fact that they brought a creepy story each week. So it was an attempt to do a modern take on one of those, I would say. So that was basically the main inspiration, and then it followed on from there.
In both the episodes you wrote, the premises and the characters are both really strong. So which came first, the premise or the characters?
Probably the premise, actually. Obviously, in the first one, you know the main character is the Prime Minister. Although actually, in an earlier version, it was kind of a combination – it was about lots and lots of people, but in the end, the focus became on the Prime Minister. It didn’t work if you didn’t sympathise with him.
As you say, he’s sympathetic, which you wouldn’t expect in a modern drama about a Prime Minister…
Yeah, and he becomes quite human. In a way, it’s relatively simple, I think, because he’s on the receiving end of something so awful. It’s kind of a horror movie, in a way. I didn’t find that particularly difficult [to write], because you’re dealing with someone in a completely new situation, I think they’d react like any normal human would react.
Were Channel Four quite supportive of the first episode’s rather taboo story element?
Oh, very. That episode wasn’t written or even discussed when the series had been commissioned. Because the second episode was the first script to be done, and there was originally a completely different episode that Channel Four weren’t so keen on, so I wrote The National Anthem in quite a hurry actually. The first draft – the first 25 pages or so – were written over the course of a feverish weekend.
But they couldn’t have been more supportive, really, of the whole series. I couldn’t fault them. They didn’t say you can’t do that or you can’t do this. They were good!
Had you anticipated the complaints the first episode received?
There weren’t many, really, on balance. If you compare it to other controversial programmes of the past. I think, when people saw it, it was clear that it wasn’t a farcical… it presented a deliberately stupid situation, and then played it straight. It wasn’t played for laughs, basically.
I find [I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’s] Bushtucker Trial more offensive, frankly, where there’s someone performing a gross act, and it’s live. That’s meant to be funny – ho, ho everyone, let’s laugh at this. I’m not surprised that people complained, but then people complain about newsreaders’ ties. It’s part and parcel, really. If anything I thought we could have had more complaints.
I particularly liked the second episode, Fifteen Million Merits. What inspired the future dystopia you wrote about?
My wife was watching me using an iPad and watching TV and using a mobile phone – and I think I may have had a laptop open at the same time. And she pointed out that in the future I’d have every wall of my house as an iPad screen. On top of that, I had a thought where it’s a sarcastic version of now, where there are a lot of people who do a job they hate for little reward, and one of the main means of salvation that’s held up is to become an overnight star. That’s the narrative in talent shows: here you are, plucked from your normal life. It’s a lottery, basically.
So those two thoughts came together. Like I said, that was the first episode written. And it’s very unusual, in TV terms, because there’s very little dialogue for 30 minutes, almost, which I’m sure drove some people up the wall. But fuck ‘em.
I thought Euros Lyn’s direction was fantastic. It didn’t look like a typical TV show.
He did a fantastic job. We were very lucky – I say lucky, I mean, we were lucky to find such good directors. Euros very much got it, and all the directors improved what was on the page, to sound like a ponce for a second. Because there are bits in that episode that deliberately border on cheese. Early on, the romance between Abi and Bing is very deliberate, with the strings and everything. And Euros embraced that wholeheartedly.
The visuals there – he was working with some fantastic designers – he really knows his stuff, technically, and he gave it a heart. We were all blown away when we saw the initial cut. It changed very little, from that cut to the final one that aired.
Have you any more episodes of Black Mirror planned?
Oh yeah. Many. I’m going through those at the moment. I can’t say what they are, obviously, but they’re in a similar vein, I’d say. You want a similar mix. The National Anthem was set in the present, and Fifteen Million Merits was set God knows when. So there’s a right mix of ideas, put it that way.
Would you look to make a longer run of episodes, or keep it to just three?
I don’t know, to be honest. Originally, the idea was to do about eight, and they were going to be half-hour episodes. Then there was a point when it became six, and then it became three one-hour episodes. But it came out better as a result.
I’ve been reading your articles about your visit to Japan recently. Did that perhaps serve as an inspiration for future episodes?
It certainly augmented an idea I’d already had. It is a bit Black Mirror, when you see people on trains wearing face masks and staring at little screens. And there are people playing things, and I’ve no conception of what they were – which takes a lot, really, because I’m quite a nerdy guy. It did have an inspiration, but I can’t say what it is.
I thought just getting a reference to an obscure PC Engine game into the Guardian was an achievement in itself.
I think I once wrote about that before, actually, but it was just in some little geek corner section somewhere. It’s quite strange talking about videogames in any sort of mainstream media, which is a bit odd, really, when you consider how massive the games industry is. It’s sort of like it happens in an alternate dimension somewhere.
But in Japan, that’s not the case, is it? Games are embraced much more readily.
Yeah, there’s much more casual acceptance of stuff like that. And I don’t know why that is. I think we’re catching up, though, I really do. Everyone’s got an iPhone or an iPad, or playing games on Facebook. There’s been a much more casual acceptance in the UK and the west in general in the last five years, certainly. Which is what Black Mirror’s about.
I’ve long hoped you’d do more episodes of Gameswipe – is that something you might return to maybe?
I wouldn’t rule it out. There are things I can’t really say about things I may be doing. I wouldn’t entirely rule it out, though – it just depends if I’ve got time. Put it that way.
You’ve been working on a comedy called A Touch Of Cloth, I understand.
Yes. It’s all been done. It had quite a long gestation period, in that it was a script that was originally written around 2004 or so, and the pilot was 30 minutes long, originally, but that was thrown away and rewritten. And it kept not getting made, which was really frustrating. It nearly got made by the BBC, then it nearly got made by ITV, then it nearly got made by Channel Four – I can’t even remember if that was the order in which it was nearly made.
Then I forgot about it, but Sky remembered it. They remembered having seen it, and liked it, and asked if we’d expand it. It’s me and Dan Mayer, Ben Cordell and Peter Holmes and John Morris. It’s Police Squad humour. It’s Airplane humour – very different to Black Mirror.
And when is it likely to air?
I don’t know! I know it’s going to be on soon-ish. I know you won’t be able to miss it – Sky will make a big song and dance about it, put it that way. They’re very pleased with it. Insanely pleased with it. Disgustingly pleased with it. So I think they’ll wheel it out with the biggest ad campaign they can. Unless they’re lying, and they’re going to bury it in a quarry!