Charlie Brooker (‘Dead Set’) interview

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For Charlie Brooker, writing about what he loves is not always easy – he’s a TV critic, which, by definition, means that sometimes he has to write about things he does not love. But now the poacher has turned gamekeeper (or should that be the other way around?) as the critic has written a new TV series, Dead Set, which he describes as a zombie romp set in the Big Brother house. And with this, Brooker is definitely writing about what he loves, because he is absolutely infatuated with zombies. Here, Brooker talks about why zombies do it for him, how men in berets are welcome to watch the series, and the problems associated with having bug-eyes…

Dead Set – can you briefly sum up what it’s about?

“I guess it’s a fairly standard nightmare scenario – Britain is overwhelmed by a kind of zombie apocalypse which wipes out pretty much everyone in the country, from hot dog sellers through to the people who pay the wages of hot dog sellers. Just about the only people who aren’t aware of it, initially at least, are a bunch of contestants in a fictional series of Big Brother. It’s inspired by Dawn Of The Dead, which is set in a shopping mall. I guess you’d say it’s a horror-thriller with satirical, darkly comic undertones. But mainly it’s a horror-thriller.”

Are you a fan of the real Big Brother?

“I’m ambivalent, really. I’ve written about it a lot, and made hay slating various contestants. I’ve got a slightly odd relationship with all reality TV, in that I watch a lot of it and get drawn into it, and yet at the same time you’re slightly appalled. It’s a similar thing to playing video games – you get drawn in and enjoy yourself, and then when it’s over, you feel like you’ve wasted a lot of time. You get people who define themselves by how much they hate shows like Big Brother. They’ll practically tune in and then sit with their back turned to the set just to underline how much they hate it. I’m not one of those, and nor am I one of the people who turn up waving a placard on eviction night. I’m somewhere in the middle.

“I suppose most TV is a distraction from something or another. That’s kind of a theme in the show, we’re kind of distracted by a lot of entertainment in this day and age, and obviously in vaguely making that point, what I’ve really done is create a zombie-romp that will further distract people from whatever might be more important in their lives. I’ve basically made the problem worse.”

In choosing the Big Brother setting, are you satirising reality TV, or is it just about the fact that it’s quite a good setting for a horror series?

“It’s kind of in-between. In the original Dawn Of The Dead, which was sort of a model for this, the setting has obviously got satirical undertones. I would say the same about this. But while you could spend your time watching it thinking ”Mmmmm, yes, a satirical point”, most of the time you’re going to be thinking ”Help! Here come the zombies!“ It’s kind of a scary romp, first and foremost. It’s not a chin-stroking exercise.”

So it’s not just to be watched by men in berets?

“No, although they’re more than welcome to tune in, provided they take their fucking berets off. In a way, on one level, the fact that it’s set in the Big Brother House is kind of irrelevant, although it also sort of isn’t. I can’t really be clearer than that! I’ve seen some people speculating about it online, and you can see why they think what they do. “Right, I get it, there’s going to be zombies, yeah? That carry on watching the show, yeah? Because people who watch reality TV shows are zombies!“ Or they say “I see what’s going to happen. Nobody will notice that the contestants have been replaced by zombies, yeah? Because reality TV contestants are like zombies!“

“But neither of those things will happen in the show. It’s much more about unrelenting peril. It’s kind of inspired by shows like 24, so hopefully people will be too busy and too involved to sit there and stroke their chins.”

What did you do in the name of research for this? Did you watch a lot of Big Brother, or go behind the scenes, or to eviction nights?

“I watched a lot of zombie films. I watch a lot of zombie films anyway, which is where the original idea came from. I wanted to make a zombie TV series before the Big Brother angle came along. I’d decided I wanted to do a series that was a bit like 24, but set during a zombie apocalypse. Then, a little while after having that thought, I was watching Big Brother when it occurred to me that that was the perfect setting.”

Were you concerned with making it a realistic version of Big Brother?

“Yes. And we wanted the backstage stuff to be as accurate as possible in some respects. So we went along to an eviction a long while ago now – this shows how long ago the idea began. I went along to George Galloway’s eviction. I snuck along, and got to go behind the scenes. I went in the camera run, which was very instructive. It’s very creepy there – it’s like being in an aquarium.

“It’s a very quiet, dark environment, and you’re looking through the glass at these creatures that aren’t really aware of your existence. And sometimes these people would stare directly at you, and a little frisson would go through you, and then you’d realise that they were looking at their own reflection in the mirror – which obviously, being celebrities, they did a lot. I realised that the camera run was a really creepy place, so you start to think how scary it would be if there was something in the camera run, and you didn’t know it was there. So it could see you, but you couldn’t see it.”

You’ve talked of your love of zombie films. The Living Dead films, and more recently 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, have all been hits. What is it about zombie films that capture the imagination?

“I really don’t know. I’ve thought about this, because I’ll watch anything with a zombie in it. But I just don’t know. What I like about zombies is that they are thick. I don’t like watching horror films about, say, a serial killer, where the villain is a brilliant intellectual, and could also double as the controller of Radio 3. The serial killer is always one step ahead of the police, and taunting them. Whereas most serial killers, in reality, are so mentally deranged that they wouldn’t be like that. And I don’t really relate to vampires or ghosts. I don’t find them particularly frightening.”

But zombies are different?

“Yeah. In the original Romero movies, zombies were this big dumb mass of stupidity. The protagonists always get complacent, because these things are shambling around quite slowly and can’t keep up with them. And then by sheer weight of numbers they get overwhelmed. So if you live in a city, you’re surrounded by people constantly. If you imagine something suddenly afflicted them all, and they were all coming after you, then you’re in big trouble. It’s a fear of an anonymous mass coming after you. Except, of course, modern day zombies have evolved.

“They learnt to run in about 2002. Which is probably good, it gives the genre a new lease of life. We considered having your old-fashioned, stumbling zombies in this, but it felt more in-keeping with a fast-paced TV thing to have running zombies. There’s something visceral about having a bunch of zombies running at you. And it means you don’t need a huge mass of zombies for effect to start with, and then when you do see a huge mass of them, it’s particularly horrifying.”

Horror in general is such a big market, now more than ever. Why do people like being scared?

“I don’t know. There’s the thought that, in days gone by, when we were all living in caves and chasing wild boar across the plains or whatever the hell we did when we were cavemen, you were generally in fear for your life once on any given day. So I guess it tickles that, it’s an adrenaline rush. It’s a way of being scared in a fun, safe environment. It’s the equivalent of a rollercoaster, it gives you an adrenaline shot. Either that or we’re just all sick.”

Is it true you appear as a zombie in Dead Set?

“Yeah, I have a little cameo. What was frustrating was that I couldn’t be a featured zombie, I had to be a B-list zombie. I was supposed to be a featured zombie, but my eyes are too weird and bug-like. They couldn’t put the contact lenses on me – they tried shoving them in for about 15 minutes, and every time I blinked they came out. My eyelids are too thin or something.”

Thin eyelids and bug-eyes? You’re sort of reptilian, aren’t you?

“Yeah, I am. Which you’d think might be a plus in having some sort of undead cameo. You might spot me. People can play a version of Where’s Wally?. Blink-and-you’ll miss it. But I’m there, and it’s not in a crowd scene. It’s in episode two.”

There are quite a few cameos from former Big Brother housemates, aren’t there?

“Yeah. They’ve not been cast in huge roles, where we expect them to act from beginning to end in each episode. They are cameos. There’s a logical reason for them to be there. We have them all down at Elstree for a special edition of BBLB, and it’s on eviction night, which just happens to be when the zombie apocalypse thing really starts to happen. We wanted people from various different series of Big Brother. We had a load of old housemates, and they were all exceptionally pleasant, even the ones I’ve been really rude about in print.

“In fact, I think the rule is, the ruder you’ve been about someone in print, the nicer they turn out to be, and the bigger an arsehole you feel for having been unpleasant about them. Anyway, we’ve got a great mix – Bubble, Helen, Kinga, Eugene, Makosi, Ziggy and Brian – a real mix of people from various years. Those bits are almost documentary style – we just put them all in a room together and got them to chat while we walked around with our cameras. Then we did some nasty stuff to surprise them, and recorded their reaction.”

So do we get to see any of them being eaten alive?

“You might do…”

Davina McCall is in it as well. Did she get stuck in with her usual gusto?

“Yes, she did. You couldn’t have something set at a Big Brother eviction night without Davina. I don’t want to give too much away, but she’s in it quite a bit, playing quite an unexpected role, and she’s brilliant. She hurled herself into it, and I think she’ll really surprise people. I don’t think they’ll quite believe what they’re seeing.”

You filmed scenes with the crowd outside the Big Brother House. Was that a real eviction crowd?

“Yeah, we filmed outside the house on the night Belinda was evicted from this year’s show. So before she came out, we ‘evicted’ a member of our cast. And we’d previously shot a post-eviction interview with her and Davina. The whole thing was improvised and authentic. Davina was just brilliant. She charmed everybody. And wouldn’t you know, I’ve been rude about Davina before – that’s a classic example of someone turning up who’s so incredibly pleasant that you just feel ‘Who is the arsehole in this scenario? It’s definitely me!'”

You clearly had the backing and support of everyone involved in Big Brother. Was that difficult to secure?

“No, it wasn’t. We’re doing it through Zeppotron, which is connected to Endemol – although the two are creatively totally independent. I would’ve thought that they’d be much more defensive, and get all sorts of assurances. There was none of that, absolutely none. We had carte blanche to do what we liked. It was almost disappointing. A lot of our characters aren’t contestants, but play production staff, and they weren’t even worried about that. Jaime Winstone plays Kelly, a production runner on the show. And we have Andy Nyman playing Patrick, a Big Brother producer, who I hasten to add is in no way based on any real producer.

“He’s a real caricature – I like to think he’s like the Sherriff of Nottingham [played by Alan Rickman] in Prince of Thieves. The sort of bastard you can really relish. He’s a massive wanker, but they didn’t seem to mind that at all. We expected they’d stick their oar in loads, but they didn’t. Everyone was really helpful – the people at E4 as well. We kept wanting to have a really good argument, but everyone was too helpful.”

You didn’t use the real Big Brother house, though. Why was that?

“It was for practical reasons. While we were shooting, they were doing it up for Big Brother 9. And also we needed to have it slightly bigger than normal, because you need to fit a camera crew inside. The design team had a really difficult task, and did it brilliantly. They recreated the house in Chertsey, at great expense and difficulty.”

As a TV critic yourself, is it nerve-wracking making forays into TV? Do you feel that people might be gunning for you, or willing you to fail?

“No, not really. Mainly because I don’t care about anyone on the planet apart from myself, so fuck what they think! I was working in TV before I started writing about TV, so I’m not too cowed by it. We got some fairly harsh reviews for Nathan Barley, but I never felt that people were gunning for me. I just felt that people didn’t really get the show, and then it really picked up on DVD and everyone realised that WE WERE RIGHT! THEY WERE WRONG! I think this show will stand and fall on its own merits. If people are genuinely just pointing out things that could be done better, then that’s got to be helpful, for future things. The bastards.”