The first of three darkly comic dramas written by Charlie Brooker is an exploration of the potency of public opinion and almost an epitaph for a society so constantly bombarded with data that it is no longer able to process information; it can only react, become bored, and move onto something else.
Even the most grotesque, astonishing and attention-grabbing events are just flickers in the cultural zeitgeist: they mean everything for a second and are then redundant.
The occurrence at the heart of ‘The National Anthem’ is the kidnapping of Susannah, Duchess of Beaumont, a young and beautiful member of the Royal Family – ‘Princess bloody Facebook, bloody eco-conscious, national sweetheart’. The ransom demand for her safe return is simple: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Michael Callow, must have sex with a pig, live on television.
Rory Kinnear (Quantum of Solace) stars as Callow, making him a dignified, stoic and – crucially – likeable leader (there’s certainly no trace of Cameron or Miliband in him; perhaps a hint of pre-Faustian pact Nick Clegg) who must either risk the death of a national treasure or face global humiliation.
While the Theresa May-ish Alex Cairns (Lindsay Duncan) and the Whitehall Machine crank up into overdrive to find a solution, find the princess, or find themselves watching the PM giving a whole new meaning to the expression ‘pig-sticker’, the country grinds to a halt as the breaking news story juggernauts its way into the national consciousness.
Although the BBC and Sky are referenced along the way, it’s with a fictional news network that we follow the unfolding tale; and while UKN shares visual similarities with the former and some programme content with the latter, it’s unlikely that Kate Silverton or Kay Burley would ever sneak into a kidnapper’s lair with information obtained from a civil servant in exchange for a saucy photo and transmit footage back to the newsroom via FaceTime – let alone take a bullet in the leg from the military upon being spotted snooping.
‘There’s your RTS Award,’ one of the soldiers quips as he sends the intrepid journalist’s iPhone to join its creator in digital heaven. Ironically, given the insanely macabre premise of the episode, it’s just about the only moment that isn’t hyperrealistic.
Take a step back from the scenario and everything else, from the steps the secret service take to employ a porn star with the PM’s face digitally painted on (Ben Dover meets George Lucas) as a body-double stunt-shagger to the ongoing online commentary read with increasing horror and dismay by Callow’s wife Jane, is not only perfectly plausible but exactly what you might expect to happen if the situation ever arose.
‘Callow gonna get pig AIDS LOL’ … ‘I see Jane Callow’s going to be sucking bacon juice off her husband’s cock’ … ‘Oink Oink Callow’ … ‘I think it’s snoutrageous’. Even the Twitter hashtags, #PMPig, #kidnap and – best of all – #pigfuckercallow are conceived with pinpoint accuracy. Everything about ‘The National Anthem’ is steeped in such a sense of now that you almost expect a cameo from Fenton the dog and his panicking, politely profane owner.
There are plenty of laugh-your-spleen-out-through-your-throat moments of amusement in ‘The National Anthem’, of course: cultural references to Peppa Pig and Lars Von Trier, big, obvious sniggers at Rod Senseless’s nom-de-plume and more subtle political digs at university closures, all sitting comfortably alongside the broader satire of the way the media, the government and – most of all – the public respond to news and the speed with which such stories overpower our sensibilities.
However, the climax is almost poignant. Callow is ultimately forced to comply with the kidnapper and enters a closed set with just a cameraman, a boom operator, some porn (‘We’ve placed visual aids in your eye-line which might help if you … get into trouble’) and a pig for company, the streets of Britain as desolate as 6am on Christmas morning as the whole nation watches its leader doling out porcine relief for over an hour. Any sense of schadenfreude fades into a curiously affecting sense of distress – not at what Callow’s going through, or at the possible fate of Princess Susannah, but at ourselves.
This is what the human race has come to in 2011, the zenith and the nadir of Western society reached simultaneously: watching people watching the Prime Minister fucking a pig on live television.
‘The world’s bloody broken,’ someone dolefully remarks. Yes, it is, but great art forms within the fractures – and that’s what the first episode of Black Mirror is – hilarious, horrible, barely watchable, utterly unmissable and absolutely, 100% true.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 4th December 2011 on Channel 4.
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