Nathan Barley writer and journalist Charlie Brooker is bringing zombies to reality TV with his new five-part E4 series Dead Set, which puts a very unusual challenge to the contestants in the Big Brother household – survive a genuine invasion of the undead! Simon Jablonski caught up with Charlie at the press launch of the opening episode of the show…
What do you think people are expecting from Dead Set?They’re expecting half an hour of “I hate Big Brother!”. But it’s a populist show. The model was a horror version of 24. We set up Jamie’s character, Kelly – who’s working on the show and is having a fling – so that you might think “oh, this is a bit Hollyoaks”, love triangles with young pretty people. And then they all die. So quite quickly we set up the hunk guy as a fucking idiot.
I think people will be expecting you to be writing something quite satirical; what do you hope people will get from the series?Most of the viewers who watch it won’t know or care who I am. I think people in the media who recognise my name will be expecting a certain thing. If people are expecting to hear my voice in it, they’ll hear it coming out of [producer] Patrick’s mouth – as the series goes on, he gets more florid speeches.
Primarily we wanted this to be nasty – a horror thriller. The original scripts were very straight; there were no jokes in them at all. And we wanted to differentiate it from things like Shaun of the Dead. I loved Shaun of the Dead and thought it was fantastic, but that’s a different type of humour in that it’s quite ‘knowing’; they’re aware they’re in a fiction. They have a very funny scene where the zombies are coming and they’re throwing the record collection, and our characters would never do that in this because they’re too scared. This is not a world in which people know what a zombie film is, or even use the word “zombie”, it’s very straight in that respect.
Since Shaun of the Dead is a film, it has the advantage of being able to keep the viewer in this bubble for an hour and a half. Dead Set is quite tense, but are you aiming to maintain the tension by the 5th episode?Yes, and hopefully we’ve pulled it off. The other episodes are a lot shorter than this one [the hour-long opening episode]. The first episode is an hour…well, 42 minutes minus the commercial breaks. It’s also been ruthlessly structured around commercial breaks. I’ve been that cynical that I’ve thought ‘This is the world in which it’s going out, we’ve got to have a cliff-hanger at every commercial break’. 24 is laid out like a series of pistachio nuts so you’ve got to have one and then you see another one, the idea was to make it like that. So, hopefully it builds to a climax every eleven minutes or something.
The other episodes were 22 minutes long, which is really quite short. Hopefully there’s enough variety to keep you going. The first three episodes are really quite straight; here’s the problem you’ve got to deal with it. In the fourth episode they have a bit of time to reflect, in the fifth episode everything gets very nasty indeed. By episodes four and five hopefully everyone’s into the show enough for them to realise that we’ve duped them. It won’t turn out to be dream or a big trick, but we’ve duped them in that the show gets really disgusting.Did you have any more say in this show than in Nathan Barley?I had a lot of say in Nathan Barley, but in this show, obviously because I’m executive producer as well, I got a lot of say. But anything like this is a massive collaboration and really quickly there were people who absolutely gave it their all because they love the idea, they loved working with zombies. Jan the director really deserves a lot of credit for not just directing it because we had the budget of a digital TV show and I think it looks shitloads more expensive than it was. And he also had a lot of say in how the story was shaped.
He saw the first episode when he came on board and said he loved it, and then I chucked him the second episode and he said “that’s a bit shit”, and I was a bit disappointed. I though ‘Who the fuck is this guy? How dare he? Right, I’ll show him, I’ll rewrite it then’. And that’s really good because he would constantly push and say what he did and didn’t like, he’s a real force of nature.
Which character do you empathise with most in Deadset?I’m totally on Patrick’s side. As the series goes on, we see that he’s got good ideas on how to survive in this situation that the others can’t palette. And a lot of the time Patrick is right, he’s just a little brusque in the way that he puts it.
Do you approach your journalistic writing in a different way to your TV writing?With this I approached it more like an exercise. Can I write a zombie 24? Can I do it? If I do, can I write it in a way that I would want to watch it with enough unexpected things and florid dialogue and enough things that make you go “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that happened.” Hopefully we’ve pulled that off. In no way was I thinking that I’m going to tell it how it is.
You’ve written a considerable amount berating shock TV for the sake of being shocking – do you think Deadset is shock TV in any way?Yes, but in a good way. Bad shock TV is where there’s no point to it. If you had a TV show where a man goes fixes a camera to his shoe and walks round shoving it up girls skirts, it’s shocking and very wrong. Or you could write a drama about a man who does that and it might be good.
Dead Set will be broadcast on E4 every night between 27th-31st October.