Charlie Brooker (Dead Set) returns to Channel 4 this December with Black Mirror, a new three-part mini-series of suspenseful, satirical stand-alone dramas with a techno-paranoia bent.
Over the last ten years, technology has transformed almost every aspect of our lives before we’ve had time to stop and question it. In every home; on every desk; in every palm – a plasma screen; a monitor; a smartphone – a black mirror of our 21st Century existence.
Our grip on reality is shifting. We worship at the altars of Google and Apple. Facebook algorithms know us more intimately than our own parents. We have access to all the information in the world, but no brain space left to absorb anything longer than a 140-character tweet.
Black Mirror begins at 9pm on Sunday 4th December with The National Anthem.
What’s the concept of Black Mirror?
“The idea is it’s a bit of a selection box, handed to you by an unsettlingly smiling sociopath. I always used to like series like Tales of the Unexpected and The Twilight Zone when I was younger, because you didn’t quite know what you were going to get, but you knew it was going to have a certain hue.
“Black Mirror is a stab at doing something like that. Each episode is a completely self-contained story, but there is an over-arching theme.
“The Twilight Zone in the 50s was looking at stuff that people were interested in at the time, like space travel, this has got a bit of technology at its heart. But that makes it sound very dry, it isn’t dry. It’s sort of dark fun.”
Why ‘Black Mirror’?
“The name came about partly because it’s the name of a song, and partly because it reminds me of a plasma screen or a TV when it’s off. Which I’m hoping viewers won’t do in droves as soon as the episodes start.”
What can you reveal about the individual programmes?
“There are three in this series. One of them is called The National Anthem – that’s the least sci-fi of the lot, in that it’s set very much in the present day. It’s sort of inspired by these news events that get whipped up in the social networks and Twitter, and everything feels like it’s rattling slightly out of control.
“I’m thinking about things like The Raoul Moat saga and when Gordon brown had to go and apologise to Gillian Duffy. You get this sort of strange centrifugal force that builds up throughout the day with the rolling news networks and public opinion.
“It’s a story in which the Prime Minister, who’s played by Rory Kinnear, and the Home Secretary, played by Lindsay Duncan, are faced with a dilemma. It’s very much in the Twitter age.”
You’re an enthusiastic tweeter yourself, aren’t you?
“Yeah, I’m deliberately trying to annoy people on it at the moment, for my own amusement. The more people get upset, the more it amuses me. I’m like a child kicking the back of your seat on a long car journey.”
So what about the other programmes?
“There’s an episode called 15 Million Merits, which I’ve co-written with my wife [TV presenter Konnie Huq]. It’s set in a dystopian, sarcastic version of the future, in which everyone is compelled to live a life of physical drudgery, and the only real means of escape is by entering a kind of talent show, of a type which may seem familiar to visitors.
“In that episode we’ve got Daniel Kaluuya, who’s starring in The Fades at the moment, and Jessica Brown Findlay, who’s in Downton Abbey. And among the judges we’ve got Julia Davies and Rupert Everett, quite excitingly. He’s playing the sort of kingpin judge.
“That’s the setting. It’s quite visually striking; it’s got a very different vibe, for want of a better word than vibe.”
And the other episode is written by Jesse Armstrong…
“Yes. We’re not sure of the title for that one yet. You know when you have an argument with your partner, and everyone’s fantasised about being able to rewind and go “Here’s what you said earlier,” or “Look how you embarrassed me” or what have you?
“Well, this is set in a world where everybody has got the ability to do that – you’ve got the equivalent of Sky Plus or Tivo for your head, so that you can rewind and replay your visual feed. It’s about a couple who have a pretty bad evening, put it that way. So in these episodes, the broad theme is that technology is helping people mess themselves up.”
So they’re cautionary tales?
“Kind of, but above all it’s entertainment and satire, they’re all quite dramatic, but there’s humour in them as well, which often tends to be quite bleak. But they’re not finger-wagging, saying “all this technology is bad”. It’s not that.
“It’s exploring a lot of what ifs with technology at their heart. I’m slightly wary of even mentioning the technological aspect to it, in case it makes it sound like someone reading out the instructions to a satellite box. They’re very much rollicking tales.”
Technology’s moving so fast these days – is there a danger that, however futuristic you make something, we’ll have probably superseded that technology by the time the programme goes out in a couple of months?
“I bloody hope not! Especially with 15 Million Merits, because we’d be living in a hell. It’s set in a world where every single surface works like an iPad, so you can swipe away at every wall. I think we’ve got some way to go before we’re there – maybe not that far.
“It’s funny, I watched lots of old bits of sci-fi while thinking about writing this, and in some respects old sci-fi looks very dated, like what they’re wearing, the 60s version of futuristic clothing, but in other respects it can be incredibly forward thinking.”
How do you find the process of writing fiction differs from your usual writing?
“It’s tricky. The National Anthem episode, for example, my first draft was way too long. It’s a story in which a lot of things are happening at once around the country, so it leaps from one bit to the other. Initially the script was 100 pages, and it had to be almost half that.
“Compacting things down to fit in an hour – actually the 15 Million Merits episode is an hour and 15 minutes – it’s a completely different discipline. I’m writing different voices and different people. I used to read about writers, how they’d write a story and say “I was halfway through writing it, and suddenly this character decided to do something.”
“I always thought “That’s bullshit,” but it’s weird, that is what happens. That really does happen. It can be hard to get started, but you know you’re into it when you lose track of time, and when your characters sort of start doing things.”
How did you find collaborating with Konnie?
“Well, she didn’t have much choice but to get involved, because I was always going on about it. It was sort of her idea, 15 Million Merits. One of the first things you see is somebody in a room, which is almost like a cell, where every single wall functions like an iPad.
“She was watching me using an iPad and taking the piss out of me, saying that I’d basically be happy in a room where every wall as like that. The tone of that episode is probably not what people would expect – in places it’s almost like a romance. It’s sweet and sour.”
Having spent so much time critiquing the work of others, do you feel more vulnerable when you write your own series like this?
“I have done in the past. I don’t worry about it so much now, really. Back in 2005, when I co-wrote Nathan Barley, I thought people would slag it off because I’m a critic, but people didn’t actually care. And with Dead Set I thought the same thing again and there was surprisingly little of it.
“Sometimes you get people saying “How can you ever write anything about other TV programmes again?” That’s ridiculous, it’s like saying, um, like saying someone shouldn’t shit in the street… because… you shit yourself… in rooms…? No, that analogy is terrible; I don’t know what I mean by that.
“Anyway, I never really thought of myself as a proper TV critic. My main aim, whenever I sat down to write the column, was to entertain the reader.”
You were often pretty acerbic in your column. Would it make you think twice about being so harsh in your criticisms?
“I don’t think I was actually that unfair when I wrote things, but I would often exaggerate. I was slightly writing in a persona. I saw my job as basically “I have to entertain people for this page in the newspaper, because life is shit, and if I can make people laugh in this 600 word article about The Only Way Is Essex, then I’ve done my job.”
“You’d have to be quite psychotic to get that angry about TV. There were occasionally things that I would genuinely get angry about. I remember one of the last Screen Burn columns I wrote was about this documentary about racist skinheads, and they really did make me very angry. But those ones generally wouldn’t be quite so amusing.”
You talk about stuff like the cell where all the walls are like iPads. Do the sets all look pretty cool?
“Very. Early on, we made a decision for that episode that we’d have the stuff actually there – often the effects are put in afterwards, but we figured that wouldn’t really be possible with this. So we built a set where every wall is a screen.
“We had a fantastic design team, it’s quite remarkable. It looks like it’s working. It feels plausible and concrete somehow, in a way that I don’t think it would have done if we’d superimposed it in afterwards.
“It looks great – to start with, you think “That looks really cool,” and then as it goes on you think “Oh God, would it actually be so nice?””
Does part of the geek in you just want to take that bit of the set home and sleep in it?
“Oh God yeah. Absolutely. The first thing you see in that episode is the character waking up as these walls spring into life and start showing a cartoon, Angry-Birds-style version of a sunrise. It looks fun.
“Anyone with a slightly geeky bent would look at that and go “Wow, I wish my bedroom was like that.” Then, as the episode goes on, I think you’d start to query your initial thought.”
What’s it like, being a writer on set and seeing your own creation coming to life in this fashion? It must be incredibly exciting…
“It is, it is. It always is. Weirdly, sometimes you feel slightly guilty. When there’s some small detail that you’ve written in really casually, and you realise that some people are busting a gut and running around all over town to try and get it.
“It’s always odd to see something that you’ve been imagining coming to life. Sometimes you can find it disappointing, but that hasn’t been the case here at all. In fact, I’d say that they’ve surpassed what I’ve been imagining in most respects.”
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Watch the trailer…